All the World's a Classroom
In Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande, surgeon, 2006 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, writer for The New Yorker, reflects on what it means to excel and be successful in medicine. The MacArthur Foundation website states that the Genius awards go “to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” It’s a very suitable description of Gawande, who in his writings is greatly concerned in making medicine better.
Write something. I do not mean this to be an intimidating suggestion. It makes no difference whether you write five paragraphs for a blog, a paper for a professional journal, or a poem for a reading group. Just write. What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observation about your world.
You should not underestimate the effect of your contribution, however modest. As Lewis Thomas once pointed out, quoting the physicist John Ziman, “The invention of a mechanism for the systematic publication of ‘fragments’ of scientific work may well have been the key event in the history of modern science.” By soliciting modest contributions from the many, we have produced a store of collective know-how with far greater power than any individual could have achieved. And this is as true outside science as inside.
You should also not underestimate the power of the act of writing itself. I did not write until I became a doctor. But once I became a doctor, I found I needed to write. For all its complexity, medicine is more physically than intellectually taxing. Because medicine is a retail enterprise, because doctors provide their services to one person after another, it can be a grind. You can lose your larger sense of purpose. But writing lets you step back and think through a problem. Even the angriest rant forces the writer to achieve a degree of thoughtfulness.
Most of all, by offering your reflections to an audience, even a small one, you make yourself part of a larger world. Put a few thoughts on a topic in just a newsletter, and you find yourself wondering nervously: Will people notice it? What will they think? Did I say something dumb? An audience is a community. The published word is a declaration of membership in that community and also of a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it.
So choose your audience. Write something.
In June 2015, I relaunched my blog after a 2-year hiatus. It was a soft launch, because one, the domain name had existed for years un-utilized, and two, I didn’t know which direction to go with the blog, hence no big reveal.
Since then, my approach to blogging has evolved drastically, a compound effect of the decisions I had made. As someone who advocates oft reflections, I intend to share some, maybe unsolicited, but hopefully useful lessons learned during this past year. If you’re a blogger and writer, I’d love to hear if you agreed, commiserated, or disagreed with any of these points.
1. Finding a Focus Starts with Asking Questions
The backstory: I spent the first 6 months after the launch finding a focus. Previously, my blogging approach covered eclectic topics on the things I experienced–travel, food, silly experiences, personal reflections, and essays. But, personally, there was something unsatisfying about this format. There was nothing inherently wrong with it, and I even enjoyed other blogs of this nature, but when I looked at my own posts, I knew there was a category that, when read, gave me most satisfaction. More on this below.
The blog relaunch was then an opportunity to do something different and ask different questions. For me, the question was this: What is the single umbrella theme that I want my blog to have? Just one.
This question set me off on a journey. I simply started blogging, because only action would bring answers to said question, and if you saw the posts between June and December 2015, you would still see the sporadic nature in themes and topics. I was experimenting.
What did I experiment on? Initially, it was to test people’s responses–which posts would have more readership, wider audience engagement, page views, etc. It seemed like the most natural metric to use. But as I observed responses over those posts, one thing troubled me: the ones that were more popular were not the ones I would want to be the most popular.
I realized then that the real experiment was on myself. How did I feel about my posts? And I surely had different reactions to them. Faced with contradicting results, I had to make a choice: Which types of posts should I do and which should I abandon?
In the mean time, I also explored the blogosphere, reading websites and blogs of writers that I admired and respected. I discovered that my favorite kinds of blogs had dense and thoughtful entries, well-written pieces by people who devoured books. They were the self-learners, perpetual students, and wisdom seekers. It was almost like finding a tribe, as I resonated with this way of life.
Lesson Learned: Ask questions. Blogging, or intentional creative efforts of any kind, is a craft. It’s a design exercise–not just graphically, but internally, a design of content. It takes effort and prodding and questionings. What do I want my creation to look like? How do I iterate to find out what I want? If the question doesn’t get asked, a journey doesn’t get discovered. And if things don’t get measured, they don’t get improved.
2. Doing Work I’m Most Proud Of
I found out that I was most satisfied when people read my thoughts rather than life updates, or rants on paper towels. These were usually long essays with messages that I’d like to send to the world, sharing what I had learned from books, people, and experiences.
So, should I write things that I knew had attracted readers in the past, or should I write things that I was truly proud of?
I decided on the latter one: to only produce things I was proud of.
What did this decision mean? It meant dropping travel updates from the blog, since I never intended this site to be a travel blog, nor a food blog. I used to blog about scrapbooking or random meet ups with friends. Dropped those too. I supposed this was what it meant to focus. What stayed on the blog was one of the constants in my life: books.
Now, a larger percentage of this blog, if not entirely, revolves around books, packaged mostly in an essay format. Naturally, this genre overlaps with blogs that I admire. I frankly want to emulate what they have done, but also remain distinct, which is easy to do since I have different sets of interests and reading selections.
I can confidently say that I’m proud of the posts published since the beginning of this year. I say proud in the sense that there’s immense pleasure when thoughts germinated in the head find their expressions in the published words. It’s incredibly satisfying.
Lesson Learned: You can choose what you want to work on and how you want to create. Don’t underestimate the power of choices.
3. Audience: Lose Some, Gain Some
As a result of this pivot, I lost readers. I mentioned that in the past these types of posts didn’t get as much attention, so I probably lost quite a number of readers. It was natural, but still not fun to go through. But I made a decision and this came with it, so I made peace. Some, though, remained.
I focused on writing and thinking better, learning more systematically, and reading more intentionally. It was probably the harder way to blog, hours and days spent on a single post, but I enjoyed it, so much so that it was probably abnormal. As ideas and thoughts mounted, they created a compounding effect that produced more thoughts and ideas, more than what I could keep up in writing. New questions emerged and new searches began. I started writing essay series, since one post was not enough to express the whole thought. The series on worldview—Between Jerusalem and Athens—and on excellence and learning were my personal highlights of the year. They were dense, but they were a labor of love.
As it turned out, this type of content could find its audience too, in fact, in wider scope than friends and family. More importantly, the ones who visited the blog stayed longer. This was incredible to find, because truthfully, this was the audience I wanted. The ones that would stay reading long essays, these were my kind of people! I’ve come to respect this audience, goading me to do even better work to honor the time they spend on this blog.
Lesson Learned: The saying goes, if you try to reach everyone, you’ll reach no one. Dare to reach just a few, and maybe the few will turn out to be not so few after all.
4. No More Hiatus
I’ve maintained a personal blog since 2008. For some reason, I thought I could take a break some time in 2013, and I went on a 2-year unintentional hiatus. I said unintentional because blogging became one of those things that drifted away as I let other things took priorities. The result: nothing good.
I heard Brené Brown once said that the suppression of the creative energy inside us was a dangerous thing. I used to think, Dangerous, really? That’s a strong word, isn’t it? But then I thought about my life happiness vis-à-vis blogging (blogging = proxy for reading and writing), it couldn’t be truer. Imagine all of those focused hours on crafting and creating essays, channeled out as negative energy toward those around me (ask my husband). It was ugly. Something felt missing. I needed a purpose, something to expand my world.
When I finally decided to read and write again, all of these suppressed energy found their outlet.
It was weird how that worked, and this was all new personal discovery. Now, I know that reading and writing are so essential to my being that I can’t afford to do without them. Thus, I’m purposed to not take any extended hiatus from blogging, for my own sake.
Lesson Learned: Got to find a positive outlet to your creative energy.
5. From Hobby to Priority
It’s hard to find time in an adult’s life for a hobby, but you always find time for a priority. Knowing how important blogging is for my happiness, I now carve out hours to work on the blog on a consistent basis. It occupies my thoughts and it’s part of my schedule, even when I don’t feel particularly inspired. The discipline of sitting down and writing is necessary and rewarding, because I always end up finding something to write on, even if it’s just crappy stuff in my notebook.
The time to blog is a matter of decision. I always find time to do what I want to do, and if I don’t get to do something, there’s a good chance I don’t really, really, want to do it in the first place. On another note, to be consistent, I have also started changing my words in saying no to things. I try to prevent myself from saying “I don’t have time” and replace it with, “I can’t make that a priority right now.” It feels more honest.
If blogging were my hobby, I probably would never have time for it. But now, it’s a priority, hence the time is found.
Lesson Learned: Decide whether what you want to do is worth making into a priority. Then commit.
6. More Lessons to Learn
The blog has evolved to a certain shape right now, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the end. After all, it’s only one-year old. Part of it being a priority means putting the time and money into it (yes, gotta have some skin in the game). I’m learning from people who have created substantive content in the world and there are areas that I need to improve. I’m taking Jeff Goins’ Intentional Blog course and I’ve invested in software to help me gain skills to evaluate my own work.
It’s a continual learning approach, always tweaking, tinkering, and measuring. It’s about perfecting a craft and loving the process more than the results. I guess I am an engineer after all.
“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.” – Hope Jahren
Such is the tale of my first year after relaunching my blog. Do you resonate? What have been your experiences thus far? Let me know!
Inspiration. Moments when life gets elevated to a kind of dreaminess. The belief that there’s something more, something better than what the eyes see.
I think about my last decade, about the books I’ve read, about the people I’ve known about, and I notice a pattern. From time to time there are individuals who inspire me not just intellectually, but also emotionally. I may encounter their voices in a book, an interview, or a speech, but a single trait impresses me over and over again. It is this: the ability to treat work as a calling .
What Inspiring People Have in Common
Muses—that’s what they are, spanning across time and interests. From Paul Kalanithi’s poetic reflection on the moral imperative to be excellent in neurosurgery, a work that treads delicate boundaries between the body and the soul, the brain and the person’s identity, Atul Gawande’s pursuit to better medical practitioners as stewards of other human beings, Oliver Sacks’ deep awareness of the humanity in each of his neurology patient, war photographers and conflict journalists’ death-defying commitment to tell the truth, David Axelrod’s hopefulness on politics as a powerful medium to impact the lives of many people, in spite of the corruptions that he has witnessed, Seth Godin’s anthem on true and genuine content as the essence of marketing, that trust is the currency transacted between you and your audience, a sacred thing not to be abused, Hope Jahren’s love for plants and for a science that can’t be measured by its money-making power, but still important to study, Bryan Stevenson’s dedication to advocate for the most helpless in the criminal justice system, to artists and craftsmen toiling to perfect their creation. Each of these individuals treats their work, almost ceremonially, as something sacred. They handle their lifework with reverence, embracing its true value, and applying themselves to it with excellence, rigor, and most of all, love.
They treat work with a deep sense of personal responsibility. It’s not a job that someone else imposed on them, something they would push to someone else if they could. They work with conviction, a commitment to do the right thing even if it’s hard, no matter what the consequences. There’s stubbornness in their hope and optimism, which in its self-fulfilling way propagates to the rest of us. They don’t only exist in book world. Occasionally I meet them in real life too, everyday heroes who see the true essence of their work, the essence of its good, and do them with excellence.
I resonate with this Way of living in the core of my being. I consider these individuals having reached a certain fullness of being alive. These are not perfect people, as their strengths may be interwoven with weaknesses in other areas. They may even be tortured souls in one way or another. But because they have lived, we become better.
Living a calling requires an idealism that must be tested by hardships. The inevitable struggle, an incarnation of the classic idealist vs. realist debate, will manifest itself. How to work with purity in the face of life’s commercial need? What about money? How do we pay the bills?
Some of us don’t have the luxury to be idealists, some may say, and yes, fair points. But let’s face it. The idealists are the ones who ennoble humanity here on earth. Their approaches, infusing meaning to the mundane, lift our existence up and refresh us with honor and nobility. They remind us that there’s something better, some way better.
Searching for True Value
In my own life, I seek for this deep meaning in engineering, in reading, and in writing. What does it mean to do good engineering, not just doing it well? What does it mean to read well, to not just be entertained, but to be taught and to share experiences with the author? What does it mean to write well, to honor the trust that you, readers, have given me by spending your time on this site? How can I produce something valuable, something that would make people better, somehow, as a result of reading the blog?
I consider these worthy questions, never too idealistic to pursue. In fact, without this pursuit, my own idealism and optimism would have died. Like those muses, I want to live a worthy life, do worthy things, and present a little gift to the world during my existence on this planet.
The Power of Choices
Often times, there are disappointed or wistful voices lamenting the fact that society is not as noble as it used to be. There’s this nostalgia of a time and place where humans were collectively better, when everyone valued work as a calling.
I’m actually not sure if such times existed. I don’t think that there was ever an ideal time to be an idealist, for each age and society has always had their optimists, their in-betweens, and their pessimists, with tensions between each group. This nostalgia may be hindsight bias, a cleaned-up version of history, because idealism makes good stories. Stories get told and re-told for generations, and somehow, we convince ourselves that only these good things happened, or that past has a monopoly on good stories.
The truth is, honor and nobility of purpose have always had its oppositions and naysayers. Idealists will always have lovers and haters. There’s nothing essentially different about human nature now, vis-à-vis idealism, than in the past. Idealism and hopefulness have always been inspiring. They have always incited a spectrum of reactions, among which are dismissal and contempt.
But if any age and society could produce heroic idealists, this would mean that there’s nothing preventing me from being one today. In fact, all those who have inspired me recently are my contemporaries in the 21st century.
What’s left between me and having a worthy life is a choice. Sure, there will be resistance, challengers, and naysayers. Circumstances may make it difficult; bills still need to be paid. But ultimately, these external factors cannot override the simple fact that I decide to strive for a noble life. It’s my decision. And it can be yours too.
You can choose to live honorably today. You can choose to treat your work with excellence today.
 This is a twin concept of finding your calling. Similar, but not identical, since I believe one can know one’s calling in life intellectually and still treat the work with no reverence.