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.

I relived a day of high school

Today, I visited Six Flags to take care of some paperwork for my music gig, and what a fun day it turned out to be!

First, I got stuck in traffic. I know that doesn’t sound like fun, but as someone who lives walking distance from work and the grocery store (the only two places I frequent), driving through traffic has a kind of a specialty factor because it is such a rare occurrence. As I sat in my car, I reflected on how blessed I am that this is not my routine every single day as is the case for so many residents of this city often referred to as the traffic-capital of the world. I thought hard to try to remember the last time I was stuck in traffic. I couldn’t.

When I got there, my appointment coincided with a high-school hiring event that they were having, and I got to talk to some of the students. They were dressed up very nicely, and one was hoping to land the first job of her life. I know that working a job is one of the best ways to learn some crucial life-lessons that will propel them far no matter what the job is or what they decide to pursue in the future, because every job has its unique challenges and makes students think critically in a very different way from an academic setting. And a job that is mostly outdoors in the midst of summer in Valencia, CA can be quite tough, as far as I can tell. Looking back on my life, my first job as a busboy and dishwasher taught me that money is hard-earned, and it turned an embarrassingly clueless and entitled kid into a somewhat responsible person who can function in society.

I chuckled a little bit when one staff member thought that I was one of the interviewees, told me that I should never wear jeans to any job interview, and handed me a math test. I guess I still look young enough. I contemplated whether I should tell them that my degree is in aerospace engineering, and any math test short of problems involving some second-order differential equations or the free-body diagram analysis of a passenger on X2 (their popular 4th dimension roller coaster) would be an insult to my intelligence. But curiosity got the best of me and I took the test just to see what it is. It wasn’t easy! Not because of the math concepts, but because the problems involving pictures of various U.S. currency were printed in black and white. It turns out that dimes and pennies really look alike without the help of color.

I didn’t expect I would get so much kick out of a day of driving, paperwork, and an unexpected math test. Life is fun when I can find the humor in all situations and just roll with it.

You don’t need a to-do list

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” -Annie Dillard

 

Do you keep a to-do list? I suggest that you replace it with this:

Step one: Throw away your to-do list.

 

Once I heard a doctor say that the people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness are the people who live their lives to the fullest. I guess that makes sense, I mean, if you were suddenly told today that you were going to die soon, wouldn’t you also start living as if today were your last, and just cut to the most important thing that you had wanted to do to make a difference, whatever that may be?

I say that we abolish these to-do and bucket lists completely because frankly, if you need to keep a list in order to remember the things you want or have to accomplish, those things must not be all that important. When is the last time you forgot something that is really important to you? Never. If you forgot, then trust me, it wasn’t that important. So let’s not confuse what’s important versus what all of the world’s marketing gurus have convinced us are important when they actually aren’t. Those are just distractions, and they do not deserve a place on your to-do list. Plus, keeping a list of things that you may or not get to do someday equates to spending a significant part of your limited time and energy on imagining some vague future all the while forgetting to make most out of the only moment that you have been guaranteed, which is this moment right now. Your focus and attention would propel you much further if they are spent on your actions today rather than on some fantasy of tomorrow. And perhaps ironically, focusing on today will actually give you a better tomorrow, because every day of your life is significantly shaped by what you have accumulated in all of the “today’s” that came before. So if something is REALLY important and you have the urge to put it on some to-do list with the hopes of getting to it, don’t even bother writing it down, and just take care of it today instead.

I also challenge the notion that there is a correlation between life’s satisfaction and the quantity of things you get to do. There are many wonderfully content people whose lives are centered around just one thing that is important to them. Even though that one thing can morph over time and that is only natural for anybody seeking growth, it’s still one thing at a time. The rest of life is fluff; stuff that will take care of themselves if you focus on your one thing.

This may not just be general life advice; it might even apply to more specific endeavors, such as your art or your work. Success and satisfaction come from not letting the small things get in their way of what’s actually important, so we can all start by figuring out what that thing is. And we surely don’t need a list to remember it, because after all, it’s only one thing. The challenge is not in remembering it, but sticking with it despite all of life’s distractions that constantly surround us.

The power of boredom

Some of my friends find it absurd that I don’t have internet at home. Maybe it’s not just that, but coupled with the facts that I have never owned a smartphone other than the company phones that my jobs have required me to carry, and my occupation being a software engineer at Google. The questions I often hear are along the lines of “You don’t have internet? But you work for the internet!”

While I am in no way advocating that everybody else do the same and live like me, it turns out that the internet, for all its upsides of giving you constant access to any information you might need at anytime, can also be a detriment and a source of distraction that prevents you from producing your best work. There are huge advantages that come from disconnecting yourself and incorporating moments of boredom to your life.

While boredom may sound like a negative thing, it has actually been a very important part of my life and my work both as a musician and an engineer. It is precisely in these moments of doing nothing that I am the most creative. Many of my musical melodies were born of these moments. So were the solutions to many of the difficult engineering problems I have faced. And it turns out that life without the internet is actually not “boring” at all, because these creative bursts also happen to be the moments when my brain works the hardest, and I end up experiencing my deepest sense of satisfaction.

If you don’t believe it, just try it and you’ll see for yourself. No, I don’t mean you have to go cancel your internet and phone plans right this moment, although you totally could and maybe you should in the near future, but for now, just unplug your wireless router and turn off your phone for an extended period of time. You’ll discover that you’re actually not depriving yourself at all by cutting yourself off from the digital world. It is rather liberating and satisfying that you can totally be at peace even in moments of boredom. And who knows, you might even produce your best work that you never knew you had within you.

Lessons from the Japanese language

What I love about the Japanese language is that an individual word often tells a story, and gets to the core of what that word is actually about.

For example, when I translate the following Japanese words literally back to English, this is what happens:

Physics – 物理学 “butsu-ri-gaku” – the study of the reason for the way things are

Engineering – 工学 “kou-gaku”- the study of the making of useful things

Music – 音楽 “on-gaku” – the enjoyment of sound

Note that music is to be enjoyed, not studied.

 

Here’s another one I love:

Happiness – 幸福 “kou-fuku” – Happy and Lucky

Now, this is deep. Happy AND lucky, not just happy. Let that sink in for a moment.

When we think about the word “happiness”, we often think of it as something that we are currently missing, and therefore need to go looking for. Isn’t that right? I mean, why else would so many people read all these self-help books, or click on articles we see on Facebook with titles like “13 Incredibly Smart Tips to be Happier”?

Maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Maybe happiness is not to be sought after, but rather, something that we all have already.

Your life is your art

Today marks the last day of my short and sweet two-week stay in my hometown, Tokyo.

First thing that I immediately notice about Tokyo whenever I come home is the amazing efficiency of its public transportation system. Trains run right on the dot to the second, and this is nothing short of a miracle if you are used to transportation in other cities, especially considering the sheer number of people that depend on this system to work this well in order for Tokyo’s economy to keep on going day in and day out. If Tokyo’s public transportation were to suddenly cease to exist, the hit to the economy will be on the order of billions of dollars every single day.

From the well thought-out UI design on the signs all over Shinjuku station that direct people to the exact platform amongst the dozens of platforms of all the different train lines that run through there, to the software-driven timely announcements that inform people of the status of the trains about to arrive and how they can stand to make getting off and on the trains efficient and quick, to the railroad employee who sets up the ramp for a customer in a wheel-chair and contacts some other employee at some other station about the exact train, car and door number where this person is expected to get off so he can be greeted and helped off the train at his destination, to the IC cards that every passenger carries which electronically records the origin and destination of each of our trips to automatically deduct the correct fare without anyone having to stand in line, all of these little things are executed in perfect coordination to transport millions of people every day so they all get to their respective destinations at the exact time they had planned to get there. To me, Tokyo’s public transportation is a work of art, and the people that made it are artists. This is art because it is unique. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

Speaking of art and Tokyo, I am thankful to have met one artist, Bidu, on this trip.

I use the term “artist” in a general sense. To me, an artist is a person who creates something original. Just because a person draws, plays music, or writes, does not mean that that person is an artist. In contrast, one does not have to partake specifically in those activities to be an artist. For instance, Bidu is a kitchen worker at Google Japan. Perhaps not what people imagine when they hear “artist”.

When you use a Google product, do you think about the people that made it possible? Probably not, but even if you do, maybe you just think about Larry and Sergey whom the public often credits as having built everything Google. If you’re a bit more versed in how software works, maybe you think about the engineers who wrote the code. But I bet you don’t think about the kitchen worker. But Bidu is just as crucial to Google’s products as anyone working at Google.

Bidu is an artist. If you work for Google and have been to the cafe at the Tokyo office, you know who he is, because he most likely greeted you with his big smile as soon as you walked in and asked how your day was going.

On my first day, I just smiled back, and told him that I’m slightly jet-lagged, but otherwise great. I got my food and sat down.

Second day, he greeted me again, so I smiled back again and sat down, but this time close to him where I could hear him as I ate my food. I noticed that he is a bilingual, talking fluent English and Japanese depending on who came in.

Third day, I sat facing the direction where he was working to see him work. I noticed that he actually does more than just greet people. He helps people find what they’re looking for, directed the traffic as the cafe got crowded, transports clean utensils and bowls from the kitchen to the pile as they run low, cleans little spills here and there as people grab the food, and manages to throw in conversations with many people all while doing his job, forming connections. Then a blind person walked in. He immediately took notice and gave him the run down of the stations and the kinds of foods available at each, and made him a plate of all the foods that he wanted.

Fourth day, I noticed that he is actually not just bilingual. He was chatting up with one of the employees in French, so add that to his list of languages.

Fifth day, I got really curious so I asked him if he spoke any other languages. It turns out that he is not just trilingual and his mother tongue isn’t even Japanese, English, or French. He is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he grew up learning one of the indigenous languages spoken in his home.

One day the following week, I did not sleep well the previous night so came in a bit tired. He noticed and told me, “You look tired. Grab some coffee, great food, feel refreshed, and ‘ganbatte’ with your job.” (Ganbatte is one of those Japanese words that don’t have a direct English translation, but it’s kind of like “Fight On!”)

You see why I call him an artist. He is not just following some manual of what a kitchen worker ought to do. He is paying close attention to the needs of the people, and is creating an awesome dining experience for the people that come in during their busy and often stressful workday.

We are often led to believe that the dent we can make in this world depends on our job titles. Well, that is simply not true. A job is just your platform, and to quote Khalil Gibran, “work is love made visible.” The art that you make depends on you, not your title. This is true specially in this day and age when the needs of the world changes so quickly and whatever job you trained for will get outdated very quickly. But no matter what life has led you up to this point, if you have a job, somebody is paying you to do what you do, which means there is value in what you do. So are you going to treat it as such, and make art with it? Or are you going to be a cog in a machine and treat your job as some menial task? The choice is yours.

Luxury. What does it mean?

My family started out in a tiny one-room apartment in Tokyo. My parents and my siblings (five of us total), all making do sharing the one room that functioned as the bed room, the living room, and the dining room depending on the time of day. This might be hard to imagine for someone growing up in the United States, but that was just the normal way of life for me and all of my friends. I didn’t think of it much, because I wasn’t even aware that other modes of living existed, other than by fictitious people I saw on TV.

When we moved to California, to put it lightly, the house we moved into was humongous compared to what we were used to. It was as if we had made it in life. I thought to myself, “Wow, we are rich. We are living the life of celebrities.” My perspectives started to shift. I started to think that luxury is about being able to afford nice things: a big house, a big TV, gourmet meals at fancy restaurants, a 5-star resort getaway, and the likes.

It took me a while to discover that I had it all wrong. I finally experienced true luxury when I stopped pursuing material things, and learned to appreciate every little blessing in my daily life. Or, as a wise person put it, “You can’t wear nice clothes to heaven.”