on motivation

“My passion doesn’t give me joy any more. I don’t feel like doing anything,” a former coworker and a fellow artist called me asking for advice.

I knew exactly what she was going through.

People assume that because I have been pursuing music all my life, any time I spend on music is nothing but joy.

Lies. Far from it. In fact, it is perfectly normal for me to have days when I don’t feel like writing any music.

About four years ago, I took a sabbatical with the intention of focusing all of my time on music. I looked at the savings I had built up, which at that time was enough to cover about ten years worth of my then minimal living expenses. I told myself, “Let’s give this five years, give or take. For the next five years, I won’t work a normal day-job, and instead I’ll focus all my time on music and see where it takes me.”

Where this landed me was a complete surprise. It didn’t take very long for me to discover that I actually don’t like music as much as I thought I did. Yes I still love music to this day, but I don’t love it to a point to be spending all of my time on it. I have many other interests that give me joy. That unfortunately means that I won’t be the best player in the world, not even close. But I’m actually ok with that, and it took my sabbatical to come to this realization. When I went back to working, I regained my deep love for music again. How life works is funny sometimes. Although I didn’t get to the point where I thought I would, the saving grace is that I have been able to turn all of my interests (music, teaching, and engineering so far) into a way to generate income anyway, which is a great place to be in as that income then funds my continued self-improvement in various ways, which then leads to even more income, creating a wonderful positive feedback loop. I thank the mindset that I have gained from other artists which helped me to get to this point, so today, I want to share a bit of that mindset.

Why?
Some people ask, “Why bother? Why do I have be good at what I do?” This is something I’ve wondered too, and I don’t know if there is a universally correct answer. I don’t know if improving and becoming good at something is a worthy cause for everyone. But from personal experience, the better I get at something, the more enjoyable it gets, so that fact alone is enough to fuel my constant quest for improvement. There are also many side effects at being good at something too. That it creates an income stream is one, but more important for me is the ability to make a difference through art.

For example, it’s happened on multiple occasions that I am playing something on the piano and someone in the audience starts crying. There is some profound power in music that can’t be explained by words. I’ve also had a handful of young musicians tell me that they started playing music because of me. That’s actually why I started playing music seriously too, when I was inspired by a particular musical performance, so it’s heart warming to know that I have been able to pass on the torch to others.

What?
What should you be good at? I actually don’t think it matters much, as long as it is something positive. Like your goal shouldn’t be to elevate yourself by putting others down. But I also don’t think that you need a pre-existing passion for the things that you pursue. Phrases like “do what you love” and “follow your passion”, while they come from good intentions, are not very actionable advice. The problem is that these sayings can make you think that if you don’t “feel” like doing something, it may not be your passion and therefore you should stop. Now I know that that’s not the intent of both phrases and I still generally agree with the spirit of both (for example, if your life is shitty because you hate what you’re doing, you definitely have the power to do something to make your life awesome instead), however it is concerning to me that a person can hear these pieces of advice and takes away the wrong message, as explained below.

A common misunderstanding is that a passion is “found” and you must find yours too. But that’s not how it works. Rather, passion, like most other things in life, is developed slowly as a result of your actions. Your passions are also dynamic, as they continue to change drastically as you live out your life.

A common mindset among people, mostly due to cultural factors of our current society:“I feel like doing this” -> “Maybe this is my passion” -> “I’ll work on it” -> “I don’t feel like doing this today” -> “This must not be my passion” -> “Go find something else” -> Rinse and repeat

Unfortunately, this won’t lead you anywhere, as you will never find anything that you “always” feel like doing. There simply isn’t such a thing, and you will never be good at anything with that mindset.

An alternative (and more helpful) mindset: “I’m going to commit to working on this whether I feel like it or not” -> You develop a habit of self-improvement. -> You start to enjoy it more and more as you start to see the result of your work. -> The action becomes an automatic habit. -> You get really good at it. -> People appreciate you for your knowledge/ability/whatever. -> It feels good because you are contributing to something greater than yourself. -> You have developed “passion”.

Or, put it more succinctly,
“Passion leads to action” – No
“Action leads to passion” – Yes

Making a Living

In a society that so often ties your identity to your job, a lot of people equate “making a living” with “making money”. Such an expectation is setting up a lot of people for disappointment when they realize (as I did after trying many jobs searching for the perfect fit) that no job will completely capture all of their unique tendencies and passions as a human being, so let’s set the record straight once and for all.

“Making a Living”
To make a living means to do the things you love to do in your life. For me, this includes things like reading, learning something new, teaching and helping people, donating to my favorite non-profit organizations, cooking, playing and writing music, getting inspired by watching the musicians I admire, seeing my family in Japan, and spending time with my close friends.

Note: the typical (but incorrect) definition of going to a job that you don’t enjoy and coming home too exhausted to do anything other than to watch TV, unless you think that the purpose of your life is to watch TV, should not at all be called “making a living.” A more appropriate phrase for that is “making a dying”, as you are slowly but surely getting closer to your death while not doing anything to make you come alive.

“Making Money”
Do I even have to define this? This is everything that you do that earns you money. For me, that includes activities like engineering of various kinds, playing music, teaching, and investing.

Now that we got those definitions out of the way, let’s talk about something really important: “the meaning of life”.

What is the meaning of life? Many find this question quite difficult to answer, because there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all answer here. But I think it’s actually rather simple. The meaning of life the way I understand it, is to do as much of “making a living” as possible, whatever that means for you. Keep in mind that you have only been given a finite amount of time on this planet to do that.

“Making a living” is about you. “Making Money” is about the economic need of society that you fill. You are lucky if those two are one in the same. But naturally as you and society both change over time, the two will almost always fail to align 100%. There is no such thing as a perfect job in which you get to do the exact thing that you want to do with your life on your job every single day. Your job, therefore, is not your identity, despite the cultural myth that makes it seem so. You are so much more complex and so much more beautiful than a mere job title you happen to hold.

Given that, it is very important that you carefully think about how you are handling your time and money. If you educate yourself about personal finance and take an optimal approach, you will be able to live more. Fail to do so, and you will be “making money” for the rest of your life, regardless of how little that may align with your “making a living”.

self-limiting beliefs

One of the tragedies of this world is the prevalence of self-limiting beliefs. It is common among people of all ages. A self-limiting belief goes something like this:

“I’m just not talented enough to do/learn ___.”

Now, it is true that sometimes you just aren’t talented enough, like in the case of certain athletic feats. For example, most of you, no matter how hard you try, will probably not break Usain Bolt’s 100-m dash world record, simply because of the body that you were born with.

But when it comes to other goals, the only thing limiting you is your belief.

I just got back from a trip to Juan Aldama, a small town in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico. One of the fascinating things I’ve come to realize (other than my newfound appreciation for reliable tap water that I have back home) is just how incredible the human brain is. I consider myself a pretty intelligent person, yet the Spanish I’m able to speak was nothing compared to the little kids playing about in the streets of Mexico, and they haven’t even had a single class on Spanish!

“Of course they can speak Spanish, they’re growing up in Mexico” you may say. But speaking a language is an incredibly difficult feat. Any language spoken in the world today has a great variety of sentence structures and subtleties to say the same things in a slightly different tone, yet humans are incredible at picking up these subtleties by performing pattern recognition, almost all unconsciously. In the case of a language like Spanish, it is made even more difficult by the presence of verb conjugation. In order to use the language effectively, you must know every conjugation of every verb, and boy are there lots of them! The verb form changes depending on so many factors (1st, 2nd, or 3rd person? singular or plural? present, past, or future?). Put all those together and you quickly realize that it is nothing short of a miracle that kids are speaking any language. Speaking a language is a much more complex task than solving calculus problems, playing jazz piano, or programming a machine-learning algorithm. Yeah those things are kind of complex too, but nowhere near the complexity of the vast knowledge and problem-solving skill you must possess to speak a language. Yet these kids handle it no problem. They’re still little kids!!

So don’t you dare say that you are not talented enough. Your brain, with enough practice, has mastered the art of speaking your mother language. What makes you think that it cannot master other things?

comfort zone is boring zone

I recently had the opportunity to serve in jury duty. Although I did not end up being selected as one of the twelve jurors, I got to experience the jury selection process for the first time, and it was quite interesting just learning about how this process works. I also learned of this magical machine called “stenotype” that the court reporter types on, and I still don’t quite understand how those machines work, but it was so cool to see someone type at godly speeds!

The jury selection involved, probably due to the content of the case, the lawyers representing the plaintiff asking the potential jurors the question “have you been turned down by a job?”.

What followed was a really fascinating outlook on life that I hadn’t known.

Overwhelmingly, the most popular answer was “No I have not been turned down.” Now I don’t know if people were just saying that, or if they really have not been rejected, but assuming that most people were telling the truth, I was shocked that that answer is at all common in this society. The friends that I’ve talked to about such matter all seem to be people who have been rejected, and in many cases, rejected MANY times! I’m no different, as I probably have been turned down by over a hundred jobs by now, because let’s face it, most job applications that you submit, if you’re submitting them for positions that you don’t meet all the qualifications (which are the most interesting and challenging jobs that you should be applying for anyway), you will naturally get rejected most of the time.

It has become kind of a goal of mine to always be seeking rejection by doing things that I might fail at. This isn’t something that I randomly picked up, it’s something that I’ve learned throughout the course of my life to be the path that leads to the most growth, and to me, growth and satisfaction are one in the same. Failure is good, because it motivates you to better yourself.

The first time I began to internalize all this was when I failed my Algebra 1 course. The failure was demoralizing, but I noticed that because I had to take the course a second time, I got more practice, and I got really good at it. It was as if I had twice the practice as everyone else, and little did I know that failing this one course really set my life well for the future that was to come. I can’t thank Ms. Leung (my first Algebra 1 teacher) enough, for having the insight to see the value of me repeating the course. So many teachers would have not cared and just passed me on as it often happens. Luckily, that was not the case for me. Sometimes, failure is the best thing that can happen to you.

Similar thing happened when I was applying to colleges. I’ve always been a slower learner compared to my peers, and my poor academic performance resulted in me being rejected by every university I applied to. I literally felt like a failure, because the younger me back then did not know how the world worked and so just assumed that going to a prestigious (or at least some four-year) university was a requirement for success. But the motivation I got from this failure was so valuable, because even though I had always worked pretty hard, I worked harder than ever during my junior college years for no good reason other than in hopes that I would prove to the world that I am not a failure. Thinking back, that was probably not the healthiest motivation for studying, but it did equip me with some really valuable, fundamental knowledge in various subjects that I used as a stepping stone to take my learning further at the university level and beyond. I no longer have the desire to prove anything to the world because I’ve learned how pointless that is (the world is too big to care about small beings like each one of us, so better not worry about such grand things and just be happy), but my urge to keep learning something new has remained with me to this very day and continues to fuel my curiosity.

This illustration by Jessica Hagy sums up my point better than I can, so I’ll just stop talking:

the power of kindness

One of the field trips I went on in my elementary-school days involved hiking. Now that I think back I’m sure it wasn’t that hard of a hike (after all we were just a bunch of 9 year-old’s), but it certainly felt like it. Some kids were even complaining that they could not walk any more. What spoiled kids we were, not appreciating the beauty that we were surrounded in (and the joy of skipping a boring day in a classroom!).

Then, my teacher said something that is so on point.

“When you’re too tired to walk, offer to carry your friend’s backpack.”

This seems counter-intuitive. But deep inside, we all understand its power, because we’ve all helped someone at some point in our lives to know that when we’re doing something with purpose, suddenly, our strength is renewed, and we have the energy to keep going.

a simple question

One of my good friends from work is a part-time Google product manager and part-time yoga instructor. She also coincidentally happens to be my sister’s favorite instructor at the local yoga studio, so they knew each other even before I had met her at Google.

My first conversation with her that happened over a year ago was so memorable that I still remember it to this day, because there was a little trigger within me that ever slightly changed the way I go about my own life.

Our first encounter happened at the work cafe, where we introduced ourselves and, just shortly into our conversation, somehow started sharing about the things we love to do (for me, music, and for her, yoga) and why.

“I love to practice yoga because it made me love my own body,” she said.

This was a revelation to me, because to that point I just thought of yoga as a way to get some exercise in (nothing wrong with that, and for many people it is precisely that), but I can see that for her, yoga is so much more impactful than mere exercise and fitness. That’s because a person who loves their body is a person who will do everything in their power to take good care of their body. But more importantly, the same concept actually applies beyond just your physical body, to your entire being.

Think about it. Once you love yourself for who you are, all of a sudden, all choices you make in life are based on the answer to this one basic question:

“I love myself. Would a person who loves herself make this decision I’m about to make right now?”

Do you live beyond your means, spending your money on unnecessary luxury? Of course not, because the future you deserves better than being a slave to some job just because it pays you. Do you stuff your body with junk food day in and day out? Of course not, your body deserves better. Do you sit around watching mindless reality television during a precious day off? Of course not, your mind deserves better.

How profound that such a simple question can be your guide every step of the way.

Kombucha is bullshit

Ok, despite the title, this post is not really about kombucha. I honestly don’t care for it that much, but if you like it, you do you. The beauty of life lies in enjoying the things that bring us joy, and if kombucha is your thing, so be it.

But this post is about something much larger and much more important, which is that I need to call bullshit on this “get results quick” school of philosophy that leads to more people resorting to stuff like kombucha, the Atkins diet (and its more recent cousins like Keto diet, Paleo diet, or any diet really), electrolyte water, penny stocks, bitcoins, some magical fitness machine that you can get for $99.99, or whatever else that claims to improve some aspect of you or your life with ease.

By the way, this kombucha thing is not new at all. My parents recall a time in Japan, before I was born, when it went by the name of “kocha-kinoko” and was all the craze. I point out its name because if you ask a Japanese person what “kombucha” is they’ll think of a completely different drink that has that name. Of course the Japanese eventually realized the ridiculousness of it and pretty much nobody in Japan consumes it today, but how funny that history repeats itself many years later here in the US. That’s actually one main reason I love studying history, because often times my knowledge of history gives me the insight to observe current events and see its exact parallels in the past. I guess it shows that despite all of the advancements we have made in society, fundamentally, humans haven’t changed. When I saw bitcoin prices go up uncontrollably not because people believed that it was inherently undervalued and worth investing in, but simply because they thought that as long as they buy it now they could sell it to some greater fool in the future for a higher price, I immediately thought of the historic assett bubbles I had studied about: the Dutch tulip craze, the housing bubble and bust in Japan 30 years ago (repeated in the US 10 years ago), and the dot-com bubble of early 2000’s.

When it comes to nutrition, the science is pretty clear, so can we all just stick to the objective findings of research and not get fooled by all the misinformation out there profiting off our desire for quick-and-easy schemes to get healthy? Nutritional science boils down to pretty simple but important key ideas: eat lots of fruits and vegetables, eat everything else in moderation, and do those consistently. It’s not rocket science.

So with that, here’s to a happy and healthy you!

PS I need to confess that I actually love sweets. But I consume them in moderation, and it turns out that small desserts bring me just as much joy as big ones!

choose the difficult road

During a recent music gig, a girl who looked to be a teenager came up to me and asked, “is it hard to become a musician?”

At that moment, I could have simply answered the question and tell her that yes, it is probably difficult and requires much more work to be a musician than most other jobs, but I wondered about why she was asking the question in the first place, so I asked her, “what would you do if I told you that it was difficult?”

After a short conversation, I found out that she loves to play the guitar, and her parents think that making a living as a musician is difficult, so she should pursue other things instead.

I see two main beliefs that drive this kind of thinking.

  1. You should not pursue something if it is difficult.
  2. Pursuing one career takes away an opportunity to pick up another down the road.

The only problem I see here is that both points above are completely wrong.

Often, it is very tempting to take the easy road. In fact, a lot of what we do on a daily basis is driven by how much short-term reward we can get for doing as little work as possible. For example, many people (including me) like to get drunk for the good feelings we get in return, however temporary they may be. We also like to satisfy our hunger by consuming junk food. And we attempt to garner “likes” on social media by posting an over-dramatic representation of some status update based at least in part on our lives showing off how great our lives are, or taking pictures of food that we didn’t even make ourselves, as if we somehow deserve the credit for the culinary art.

All these things give us instant gratification, but they make us worse off in the long run. They make us feel good just in that moment, but that feeling does not persist, and we even pay a price afterward. In the case of alcohol and junk food, the price is obviously our degrading health. In the case of posting things on social media, our price is the empty feeling we feel on the inside from desiring so badly for social approval while doing nothing of value to others.

It turns out that the things that are truly worth doing, like the things that change the world for the better and the things give us a sense of purpose, are all difficult things. So even though we all succumb at times to the desire to pursue the easy road, we must not give up completely by making that our default action. Whenever we come across a juncture (which is pretty much every single day), we must intentionally choose the difficult path that takes more work but also leads to more growth.

And as for the second point, no, we do not necessarily diminish our chance at one career by pursuing another, and sometimes, we even gain more, as our philosophy slowly builds to help compound our overall growth which opens up more opportunities. Besides, with the current pace of societal changes, there isn’t a single job that exist today that is guaranteed to exist twenty years from now anyway, so we might as well embrace the changes and take joy in all the learning that we must do continually. It is even becoming the norm for people to pursue multiple careers throughout their lifetime. Personally, I know that I have lost nothing by pursuing music. In fact, music taught me some of the most important lessons that allowed me the chance to develop my skills in other areas. Music helped me internalize that the only way to get better is to work to get better. It turns out that this applies in any other field. So just by knowing that and letting that conviction be the guide for daily action, you will have a leg up on anyone who believes that there is some magical shortcut in life to achieve more with less effort. There isn’t.

Just show up

I happen to live and work by the gym where Kobe Bryant works out. He works out quite early, and today he showed up at 5:45AM for his morning workout. My coworkers tell me that this is nothing unusual for Kobe, and he’s been doing it since his high school days. Mind you, he is a retired player, but hey, Kobe is still Kobe, and I think the fact that he still shows up in the morning to this day says a lot about his attitude and philosophy toward life in general, not just basketball. Now I feel like a coward lecturing to my students about the importance of work ethic, when my daily practice sessions don’t start until much later in the morning (if it starts at all). Apparently, I still have a whole lot I must learn from truly dedicated people like Kobe. He makes me look like the laziest person on the planet, and that’s probably why he makes millions and I don’t.

By the way, here’s a little nugget of insight I’ve discovered over time, for anyone who thinks that practicing is too hard and unpleasant; practicing is actually not hard at all. What’s really difficult is to do the Step Zero, which is to show up for practice. Or in my case, to sit myself down in front of the piano. Once I can overcome that initial step, the actual process of going through the practice is not as difficult.

Simplicity is fun.

Yesterday, I wrote about getting stuck in traffic and how fun that was because of how rare that is in my life. There is actually a broader point I wanted to make, which is that events in your life that are rare are more enjoyable than those that happen frequently, and understanding that part of your psychology can help you hack your life in a certain way to make it much more enjoyable.

There are many examples of this.

For one, I don’t subscribe to anything. No cable, no Netflix, no Spotify, no Amazon Prime, and I actually don’t even own a TV nor a computer. While these services may appear like a good deal because you get to consume as much entertainment as you want for a very low price, having constant access to entertainment actually diminishes the positive life-energy that you can gain from them. Plus, seeking for “good deals” is not the best way to go about life. We will fare much better by optimizing our surrounding to improve our quality of life rather than stuffing our minds and bodies with unnecessary stuff, however cheap they may be.

I actually still do watch TV once in a while, at Best Buy. I walk into their state-of-the-art surround-sound and TV display room, and enjoy a good showing of Planet Earth 2 (or whatever they happen to have on display), and let me tell you, it is a pretty amazing experience! It’s been so cool to see the improvements in TV technology over time, because when I walk into a Best Buy store after not having visited one in a few years, I am shocked to see that what used to be an amazing feat of technology that costed $2000 are now being sold for like $200, and there is an even more amazing piece of technology out today that has claimed its place in the $2000 range (apparently called “4k” now. Did you say 1080p? That’s so yesterday). But do I come home with the TV after this really cool TV-watching experience? No. Because I understand that as soon as I bring one home, I will just get used to it, and it won’t feel as amazing anymore.

Last week was TYCTWD (Take Your Child to Work Day) at Google. I signed up to teach one of the computer science classes, and the kids had a blast skipping a day of school to learn about Google and our work in machine learning, and also about computers and society at large. But what was particularly interesting to me was to see the kids’ joyous reactions to the free gourmet meal at one of Google’s cafes. They think it is the best thing ever, and it reminded me of my first days at Google. The meals are amazing! Or so I thought at first. Then I just got used to it. Now, it’s just food. I even catch myself complaining sometimes, “that dish was a bit strong on the spices”, “Taco Tuesday again? We just had one two weeks ago!” “Why not serve lamb chops or scallops more often?” Wow, what a snob I am. But you see the point? Even something as amazing as free gourmet meals at work, a very special perk that pretty much nobody else in the world gets, will quickly start to feel ordinary if you get it every single day.

I have a friend who lives atop a hill overlooking the city of Orange. About once a year, I would attend a dinner party at her house where she brings together scientists and engineers in the area. The view is quite spectacular, and I enjoy every minute of it, sipping a good wine and having an intellectually stimulating conversation learning about various things happening at the forefront of science and technology. I realize then just how much I appreciate a nice home with a view. But would I buy that house? Never! Not because I can’t afford it, but because I understand my own psychology. The view is enjoyable because I go there once a year. If I owned that backyard, it’ll just become the norm, and I would no longer appreciate it. Same exact reason why I don’t own a luxury car. I love it when I get to catch a ride with some of my friends who own luxury cars, precisely because I don’t own one and I rarely get the opportunity to ride in one. Recently I got to ride in my friend’s Tesla and he demonstrated to me its acceleration capability. It was like a thrill ride at an amusement park!

We can improve our lives by simplifying our surrounding environment. The less we have, the more we enjoy everything in life.