Thoughts

I am not sure which disgusts me more. The sick man that my country has elected to hold our highest office, or the guy I saw on the news this morning who claimed, “I hate to say it, but I agree with him. We are a Christian nation” (referring to the ban of people from certain countries entering the United States).

It’s one thing to oppress the marginalized, but to do it in the name of God is a whole another level of evil. I have never been so ashamed of my country and my religion as I am now. If you call yourself a Christian yet do not stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters today, we are NOT on the same page, and I do not know your God. Your hunger for political power has failed your moral senses. If you feel that it is on God’s heart to judge or put down others based on their ethnicity, religion, skin color, or sexual orientation, do some serious soul searching. That is not God, that is you.

I have been refraining from writing a political post. As a musician, I have felt that doing so was a waste of my time, for my goal has always been to make the world a slightly more beautiful place through my music, and that has not changed. But this is not even about politics. It is about doing what little I can to encourage those who feel oppressed at a very dark time in our nation’s history, and as a first step, I must make my stance public. Trust me, this country is made up mostly of good people. If you feel the opposite is true, it is because the good people are not making as much noise. So I encourage you, make some noise with me.

Yesterday at Google, we walked out of work in protest, and I am proud to be working with such morally-directed peers. Displaying our disappointment is an important beginning, but we must also think about the long term solutions.

As high-profile as the actions and words of the politicians may be, the real difference makers are actually among each of us. Real changes happen slowly in mundane ways based on the actions that we choose daily. It’s been said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” So while you may feel frustrated how little of a part you play, do play your part. Make the world better. Be kind to others. Invest in the education of those with limited access. Refrain from consuming sound-bites from biased news sources and social media. Teach yourself and those around you on how these policies work and how they affect people. Have face-to-face conversations (listening is more important than speaking) with those who disagree with you. Give your time and money to organizations whose cause you believe in. Support classroom teachers, for kids are our future, and education is the best long-term solution to society’s troubles.

We are in this together.

Girls Who Code

Girls Who Code’s Summer Immersion Program application is now open.

If you know of any girls currently in the 10th or 11th grades, encourage them to apply to take part in this life-changing experience.

The Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program (SIP) is like an intense coding boot camp for high school girls. Over the course of one entire summer, they attend the program for 7 hours a day, and they learn important computer science concepts such as conditionals, abstraction, and object-oriented programming, and their various applications such as robotics, cyber security, and game and web development. Most of the girls come into the program with little to no computer science experience, and not only do they come out with a newfound love for coding and problem-solving, they also learn that with time and effort, they can accomplish things that they thought they could not do.

Check out this video below documenting my students’ summer, and this LA Times article highlighting some of the girls and their projects. Video credit to Linda, my amazing fellow co-teacher!

The Little Things

Recently, I attended Kan and Minae’s wedding. Kan is a musician, an artist, my younger brother, and my best friend. The night before the wedding in Hiroshima, we went out to a casual Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki dinner. At the dinner, Kan said, referring to his upcoming wedding ceremony, “I am much more about doing the little things daily to build up the relationship.” And this is the reason why I am confident that Kan and Minae will have a happy life together.

Most of us that grew up in today’s society were taught that our life is about our achievements. We are constantly asked “what do you want to be?” as if what occupation we pick is what determines the quality and impact of our lives. Societal forces pressure us to stay on some “path to success” which usually involves getting good grades, getting a college degree from a well-known university, making lots of money, and raising a happy family. I see nothing inherently wrong in any of these things, but I do see a disturbing trend where so many people seek them as if they are the things that will give their lives meaning and happiness.

I challenge all of us to shift this attitude a bit. Rather than focusing our attention on these milestones, we should instead seek meaning in the little things that we do daily. Instead of setting up goals that are centered around outcomes (such as “I wish to land the job of my dreams” or “I wish to find a partner and be happy together”), we should set up goals that are growth-oriented (such as “I will study daily to gain more skills and improve my chance of landing the job” or “I will work on improving the quality of my relationship with others by listening more and communicating better”).

The benefits of this change in attitude are two-fold. First, our emotional well-being will not be bound to outcomes that are not fully in our control, and second, regardless of the results, we will be happy because we are seeking meaning in our growth, not the final outcome. And as an added bonus, although this is the least important part, we will end up with better outcomes anyway, because more opportunities open up when we are focused on growth.

With this new attitude, everyday feels like a celebration, because we will make progress, however small, every single day.

With that, I wish you a happy new year. Today would be a good day to get started. Invest this day to your personal growth. I also highly recommend reading Kan’s 2017 mantra below:

A 2017 Mantra

by Kan Adachi

What does it take for an artist to do “Good Work”?

Doing good work is not about making an impact. It is not about making a living, gaining fame, or any other social metric. In fact, the quality of work that one does is largely determined by how frequently they intentionally show up to work. We like to think that a painter sits down in front of a blank canvas, is eventually struck with inspiration, and proceeds to arrive at a masterpiece through a series of awe inspiring strokes.

However, more than 90% of what we see in terms of quality in art actually comes from repetitive, mundane daily practice. Behind every stroke of paint on a masterpiece are hundreds of thousands of strokes that aided in developing the technique and taste of a master. A painter is good at what they do because they do it a lot. The other ~10% that contributes to their work quality can come from a myriad of sources like inspiration and talent.

On a similar note, what I love about sports is that an athlete’s talent seems to be masked by the fact that they work hard day-in and day-out. The outisde world knows that if an athlete does not continue to practice, they will not live on as titans on their respective sports forever. That, to me, is a realistic understanding of what it takes to “be good”.

Because the skills relevant to less concrete activities like the visual arts, music, and teaching cannot be measured in a competitive fashion, the general narrative about how to become good at those things seems more muddied. I frequently hear phrases like “You are so talented!”, or “I wish I could play like you!” in relation to the aforementioned skills.

But I don’t hear people say things like “I wish I could run as fast as him”, or “I wish I could throw the football like that quarterback.” (At least I don’t hear that often.) The reason for this is because inherent in that statement is a requirement to practice.

Why should it be any different for any other skill?

The reality is that humans are largely creatures of habit, muscle memory, and repetition and what we do on a daily basis has a huge impact on our performance in regards to any skill. The fact that some activities’ necessary skill sets cannot be measured does not change that reality.

In order to do good work, one must make a commitment to showing up on a regularly basis.

6 Rules for Resolution Setting

It’s the new year, and I want to explore an avenue of resolution setting that is hopefully a refreshing paradigm to the typical New Years resolutions that individuals simply fail to achieve.
Here are the six ground rules and their reasons for my resolutions this year:

1. It must be commitment based with a specified frequency.

The biggest problem I have in achieving my goals is staying disciplined and vigilant towards achieving that goal. A commitment centric approach is essential to goal setting because the energy is focused on showing up instead of the final prize. This combats the desire to only pursue the goal when I am motivated to do so.

2. It must include a time of day as specific as possible

By including specific details of when the task will be done, it is easier to make it routine. Less resistance for doing the activity will only help me achieve consistency.

3. It must include a measurable metric to assess completion of the activity

This gives me a non-negotiable, “black-or-white” measurement for whether I lived up to the commitment or not. The less wiggle room there is for kind-of doing the activity, the less likely I will cheat myself by counting days that should not be counted.

4. It must include a time frame for the commitment that is longer than a month; At the end of the time frame, I will reassess whether the habit should be continued or not.

Not all habits and activities are right to pursue in the long-run. Everyone is different and I have to be able to accept when something doesn’t jive well with me so that I can focus on trying a new habit that may be more beneficial. This also has the added benefit of allowing me to focus on developing discipline instead of being distracted by whether a habit is right for me. I can delay that assessment until the time frame is over when it is more appropriate to assess the overall quality of my goal.

5. It must list an accountability partner who I will check in with every week

Having someone hold me accountable is an effective tactic to keeping myself in check. However, telling someone I will do something can be counter productive because there is no real accountability metric in my intentions. Instead, the goal with this requirement is to inform them of the action steps that will be taken should something go awry. Which leads me to:

6. It must include a back-up plan should I miss a commitment

I am not perfectly disciplined and developing a new habit is rather difficult. A mistake people frequently make when setting New Years resolutions is that they only focus on what to do right that they don’t have a contingency plan and realize that they are screwed because they messed up their resolution. A back-up plan is perfect for reinforcing that I committed for X number of days and I will do my best until I hit that time frame.

Here’s an example resolution following this format:

  • I will walk every morning for 15 minutes as the first thing I do after waking up.
  • I will track my daily progress and share the details with [someone] on a weekly basis over [email, Facebook messenger].
  • I will be committed for 60 days, at which point I will reassess whether this activity is something I should continue or not.
  • If I miss a day, I will set an alarm clock reminder for myself on the next day to be sure not to miss two days.
  • If I miss two days consecutively, I will notify my accountability partner and let them know that I am still committed to continue doing the activity for the time frame I specified.
  • If I miss three days consecutively, I will set up a time to discuss with my accountability partner explaining the reasons for missing.
  • For every subsequent consecutive day missed, I will continue to notify them of the reason for missing via [email, messenger].
  • Once I am back on track, I will notify the partner that they will not hear from me besides the weekly check-ins unless I am off track again.

Doing “good work” is a lot of work; it takes a little bit of effort, at a frequent pace, over a long period of time. This is news most people don’t want to hear, but I want to fully embrace this challenge in 2017. I believe in my heart that it is productive.

I encourage you to take the same amount of diligence and effort to start off the year right.

Happy New Year!

 

Good Bye Los Angeles

Today is a bitter sweet day. I bid farewell to Los Angeles, the city I have called home for the last six years. So much has happened in the last six years, and at a time like this, it is worth remembering all the wonderful turns that I never thought my life would take that led up to this moment.

I first came here to do an engineering internship. If you had told me back then that I’d be in L.A. for the next six years, I would’ve told you, “you have no idea who I am. I don’t stay in the same place for that long.” But here I am, six years later. My time here has been filled with wonderful memories, but my proudest accomplishment has got to be the time I spent teaching in the classrooms. In hindsight, I am so glad that I jumped, without much thought at the time, at an opportunity to start a charter high school’s engineering program. Some people thought that I was making a stupid decision, and I’m sure that they had good intentions, but to me, nothing is more stupid than not trying to do the things that your heart tells you is the right thing. We only get to live once.

I also picked up the piano a little more seriously during my time in Los Angeles. Back in college, it was very hard to dedicate enough time to music as an engineering student, and I knew on the inside that I really missed music. So after graduating from college, I started to practice more and more, and one day, I finally found the courage to quit my jobs altogether and take a sabbatical year to focus on my music and personal growth.

A significant chunk of my sabbatical was spent playing and writing music, but I also had the time to study whatever I found interesting at the time. I studied various topics, such as fluid dynamics, orbital mechanics, and computer algorithms. It was a very relaxed and happy time of my life.

Naturally because I was not working much, my savings started to go down, and my happiness started to turn into worry. It was at that time I came across some students, by chance, who wanted to learn programming from me. It started with just two girls, but pretty soon they brought their friends to learn, and it grew into a group of six. Their attitude and their desire to learn inspired me, and I wanted the same for myself. As much as I hope that they learned some valuable lessons from me, here’s a big secret: I learned much more from them. Teaching this group of girls turned from the little thing I did on the side, to the highlight of my week. I kept teaching them even after I went back to the workforce full-time. It was absolute joy.

Yesterday was my last lesson with them, and we said our good-byes. I know that this is not the end though, because I know that they will take whatever they have learned, and apply it to their lives. As disappointed as I have been at the recent turn of political events and the outright display of racism and sexism in this country, I remain hopeful because I know many amazing young people. They are quite literally the future, and I am optimistic.

Although I am leaving Los Angeles today, I will forever consider this city my home. Special shoutouts to the following people:

-The crew at Coffee Times Donuts on Main. Your smiles always helped start my day on a positive note.
-The fellow engineers at Virgin Galactic. Even though I am leaving, my passion for aerospace has not wavered, and I will always be cheering for your successful launch.
-The campus assistants of Synergy Academies. I don’t know how I would have done my job without your help. Thanks for being the real difference makers behind the scenes.
-My neighbors in Crenshaw. Although I was a bit surprised when you assumed, without much thought, that I was Chinese when I first moved in (there are different kinds of Asian people you know!), you were always so nice. Sorry if my piano playing ever kept you up at night.
-My students. You inspired me more than you know. I am so excited to see what the future will hold for each one of you. Life won’t be easy, but it will be beautiful.

Until next time,
Shin

Advice for the first year teacher

Ever since I left teaching, I have been wanting to go back into teaching in some capacity, and recently, a perfect opportunity presented itself. I signed up as a volunteer with the TEALS organization (https://www.tealsk12.org/) that places engineers in classrooms, and today, I finally went back into teaching.

As I was walking on campus reminiscing my teaching days, I ran into this one teacher. After a short conversation, I found out that she is a first-year teacher, just about to teach her first lesson.

Her composure amazed me, because I remembered how scared I was going into my first lesson. I didn’t sleep a single minute the night before my first day (and this actually continued year after year, I could never sleep before the first day of the school year). Now that I think back, it’s kind of miraculous that I chose this profession, because one of my biggest fears is public speaking. Anyway, this new teacher asked if I had any advice for the first-year teacher.

Here are the things I would tell my younger self, and any other person who is about to embark on this difficult but amazing journey called teaching.

1. Don’t teach. At least not in the traditional sense. Don’t be that teacher who stands in front of the class and talks. As much as teaching has become synonymous with lecturing, good teaching is so much more than that. Think back to your own life. What are you good at now, and how did you become that way? Anyone who is exceptional in any field knows that they got that way through struggle. And although I love to sit back and listen to a good lecture sometimes (who doesn’t like TED Talks?), how much have you really learned from watching TED talks? They are very well-prepared presentations for sure, but do you remember anything from them? The truth is, people do not learn by watching others. It’s deceiving because you even feel like you’re learning when you watch some passionate person talk about their experiences and what they’ve learned. But if you could really gain a skill by watching another person, then I should be a phenomenal Olympic diver with all the terrific jumps I saw tonight. But of course that’s not how it works. If I wished to improve at anything, I must do, not watch. So good teaching, then, is to create a classroom experience in which the students must actively engage in the material. They must be encouraged to struggle. It is so tempting to just give them the answer, or show them some shortcut. Resist the urge. If your student tells you “you make learning so easy!” then you have failed as an educator.

2. Don’t beat yourself up. You work in a broken system called American education, and not everything that goes wrong in your classroom is your fault. There are forces outside the classroom that you cannot control, so focus on what you can. There are millions of kids not getting the education they deserve all over the nation. A majority of your students will come to you with below-grade-level skills. I know, it hurts me too when I think about it. America should be ashamed for not having the political will to do anything about it. But look, you do have the opportunity to provide the most amazing education to the thirty kids in front of you, right here, right now. So while you’re in the classroom, forget politics, and seize the moment. These students need you.

3. Once you’re in the classroom, all the things you’ve read in the teacher preparation program will go out the window. Well not exactly, they are very good things to keep in mind, but when you are faced with a situation, you do not have the time to come up with the best solutions, because you have to keep the lesson moving. This is why teaching is so much harder than other professions. Inevitably, you will make wrong decisions at times, and that is okay. Reflect on them so that when a similar situation comes up again you will be prepared, but just because you made a mistake does not mean that you are a bad teacher. As with anything in life, you get better with time and practice. Actively seek to improve, but when results don’t immediately show, be patient.

4. And most importantly, believe in your students. Every student has the potential to do amazing things in life, but often, it takes a teacher who believes to bring out that potential. There are so many forces in society that constantly put these kids down. They are told over and over again that they are not good enough, and pretty soon, they buy into this lie. “Maybe I don’t have what it takes,” they say. Fucking bullshit. You know it’s a lie, otherwise you wouldn’t have chosen this profession. But your students don’t know yet just how much they are capable of. So believe in them, even when nobody else does.

#blacklivesmatter

I am so disappointed. I am so ashamed to call myself an American. I am disappointed in what my country has stood for throughout its history.

The police shootings are just a symptom. It’s a mere side-effect of a much larger issue. Although the past few days have brought about more attention to the grave injustice that exists, sadly, these shootings are actually such minor issues that even if every police officer who have committed police brutality were charged for their crimes and all of these shootings stopped, we would hardly make a dent in the racism prevalent in this nation. You see, racism is a silent assassin that has always played a role. It is not an individual problem, as we so often frame it to be (“that racist cop” or “that racist political candidate”). It is a systemicsocietal problem. It is a dark, ugly force that has unnecessarily taken, and continues to take, so many black lives, quietly, but constantly, during every period of our history: the poisoning of tap water in Flint, the delayed rescue actions in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the lack of access to basic nutrition in inner city neighborhoods, and all the housing, employment, and health care discriminations that prevent people of color from having a fair shot at life, just to name a few. Imagine, what if these deadly environments existed in say, Beverly Hills, CA? Do you think society would start caring then?

Let’s not pretend like racism is an issue of the past, or that it’s a small problem that we can stop if we only stopped few racist people from holding positions of power. Racism has been, and continues to be, a systemic problem that plagues this nation.

I am disappointed in my country. I am disappointed in where we stand today.

Graduation

Recently, I attended what could have been my last high school graduation. I say “last” because all of my former students have now graduated from high school. It is scary how quickly time flies, and I still can’t fathom that the kids I knew as 13 and 14 year-olds have grown and are going off to college in what felt like a blink of an eye.

Watch this powerful graduation speech by one of my students:

Xitlalli, the one giving the speech here, is one student whom I grew particularly close with during my teaching career. The thing I miss most about being a teacher is the chance to meet and develop a connection with amazing students like her, for I feel that I have formed what will likely be life-long bonds with these students. They are practically my sisters and brothers now. And although the world may dismiss these students as “black and brown kids from the city”, to place such a label completely misses the mark, for these students are beautifully and uniquely human, and they each have their story, despite being ignored by the rest of society.

I am convinced that there are no such things as innately “smart” or “dumb” kids, and the fact that there are students performing at a high level in one part of the country while poorly in another, is simply an indicator of our systemic failure. Either we have failed to recognize the injustice and racism prevalent in the U.S. public school system, or even worse, we have recognized but simply decided to do nothing to fix the all the wrongs we see, and for that, we should be deeply ashamed.

Then there’s the undeniable truth that there is a lot of political pressure to keep things the way they are. It’s simple arithmetic; for every underprivileged person the society fails to educate, it opens up an extra opportunity for an “over”-privileged person somewhere else because there is one less person competing for that spot in college admission or for a job opportunity. It is no wonder that the gap between the have and the have-nots seem to only widen; many politicians and their supporters are hard at work to try and keep this status quo, fooling many by claiming a phrase like “Make America Great Again,” even though the only people this country was ever great for for its entire history are white men. And worst of all, we often blame the underprivileged for their hardship, claiming that success is the result of hard work and those who want it simply must work harder. Hard work is important, that I agree, but to ignore all of the things that were handed to me just by being born into a privileged upbringing, and to claim that my circumstances are better because I simply worked harder than, say an immigrant mother who had no access to education and works overtime cleaning hotel rooms for the off chance that her children might get a better shot at life, is blatantly ignorant, offensive, and delusional.

But despite all that society does to try and keep some people down, students like Xitlalli manage to arise against all odds, and with tremendous hard work and determination, break the stereotype of “the kids from the hood”. Of all the accomplishments in my life, nothing makes me more proud than the fact that I was their teacher.

There is so much more work to be done to tip the balance of this unjust society, but I have high hopes that we can, however slowly, change the world for the better if each of us do our part.

 

Memorial Day

I am spending this Memorial Day weekend in Idaho. Growing up in Tokyo and now living in Los Angeles, the hustle and bustle of the city life has become the norm for me. I even feel at home when I go back to Tokyo, smelling the polluted air, seeing the neon signs that never turn off, and walking amongst the thousands of pedestrians whom I will never see again.

However, once in a while when I do get away from the city, I am reminded of the remnants of what Earth was before men, and all the things that we have done and continue to do to destroy the only home that we have ever known. And what is it all for? To stimulate the economy? So we can live comfortably? What does that even mean?

It is silly to set out to provide a better life for men at the cost of the planet, because life as we know it requires the planet, but even if that was a worthy goal, it seems that we have not done a very good job at that either, as we have left behind so much of the population and made a society in which only the few benefit from the hard work of the many.

A student of mine expressed, “the idea that certain people are more important than others is the cause for all that’s wrong with the world.” I completely agree with her, and I would even go further to point out that we have somehow created a world in which the people who are actually important and form the foundation of a functioning society are seen as not important and replaceable (think chefs, janitors, teachers), while people who perpetuate the systemic inequality are seen as worthy of respect and what we should all strive to become (think corporate lawyers, politicians, and investment bankers).

Think about the message that we are sending the youth. Is it any wonder that so many kids grow up thinking that their worth is measured by how prestigious their college is, the amount of money they make, or the size of the house they own? This narrow version of success that society imposes on the minds of the youth is not only inaccurate, it is harmful. It doesn’t do much more than to reinforce the idea that most of us are failures in life because we have failed to live up to the unrealistic expectations, and worse, the few who do become “successful”, whatever that means, realize sooner or later that real success is to be defined by the individual, and to work toward any other version of success is to sell ourselves short; we will have spent a significant portion of the little time that we have been given pursuing the wrong things.

Happiness is a state of mind and a way of life; it comes from within, and it does not depend on what is happening around us. It does not appear magically when we reach some milestone, because the struggle and the journey of shaping yourself is where true meaning lies. Material possessions do not make us happy, because we already have everything we need. When we realize these truths, it frees our mind to start focusing on the right things; deepening our relationships with others, pursuing growth, and searching for meaning in our work that goes beyond trivial, meaningless goals, like purchasing tickets to an island getaway, or owning a luxury car.

This Memorial Day, as we remember the many who have sacrificed their lives for their country, it is only right to ask ourselves this; as we move forward, what is a cause really worth fighting for?

If our collective answer is to keep fighting to preserve the lifestyle of the privileged few at the expense of the lives of the rest, then we will have failed miserably.

(note: while many authors use the word “men” to mean all people, and some even have the nerve to make excuses about how it used to be a gender-neutral term and it should be interpreted as such, I specifically used that term in this post to mean it in an actually gender-specific way. Our societies have been set up to benefit men, not women. Most acts of violence throughout our history have been committed by men, not women. Most corporations that continue to destroy our planet are led by men, not women. So yes, I really mean men when I say men.)

Music’s Purpose

Earlier this week as I witnessed L.A. Philharmonic’s deeply emotional performance of Arvo Part’s masterpiece, “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten,” I was reminded again the purpose of music.

In my daily life as I strive to become a better musician, it is very easy to get caught up in the minute details of trying to perfect my technique that I forget why I am pursuing music in the first place, and what I am trying to accomplish through my music.

I am not writing this to dismiss the importance of technique, rather, quite the contrary. Technique is important because it serves a higher purpose. All of the scales, arpeggios, and etudes that I play on a daily basis, and all of the time I have spent taking apart a phrase into even smaller parts and studying them, have equipped myself with the ability to express the emotion which I always knew in my heart that the music deserved, but did not have in my hands the ability to bring out.

This particular composition was just what I needed to hear, because of what the piece consists of. It is a piece written for the orchestra, yet unlike many symphonic works that consist of quickly changing themes and complex harmonic structure, it basically has one melody, a descending minor scale. It is a bold expression of how simple things can add up to so much more than a sum of its parts.

In a way, this piece is a perfect synonym of life; the world is like the symphony, and each of our lives express a small yet important piece that make up the beauty that is the universe. It was a slap in my face and a reminder of the sheer power of one simple idea.