All the World's a Classroom
A reflection on life, growing up, and becoming.
I’m thirty-three years old, far too young to be conclusive in my draft of life lessons, yet old enough to have gone through a handful of life transitions. That is to say, I’m writing as someone who (according to life expectancy statistics) still have much life to look forward to, yet also have needed to say goodbyes—to people, places, and previous identities.
So as far as life reflections go, here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately.
The art of living and growing up is a dance between the me that I used to be and the me I am becoming. Between changing, yet staying the same.
Sometimes the more current me is better, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes a change is welcome, sometimes it’s not.
How to do this dance gracefully is the question. And to answer it, I have to turn to the wisdom of several wise writers.
On Staying the Same
Who we are today, physically, mentally, in character and personality, is most likely unrecognizable to our 4-year-old self. Our minds have changed, our bodies have changed, and our souls have changed. But at the same time, I can still hear the self-talk of my younger years. That soundless voice I speak to myself with, the one in which I am most eloquent, the one that can wallow in despair, and then empower—that voice is still very much the same, still recognizably me, today.
This evolving self and the inner recognition that I am and have always been me, are beautifully described by Maria Popova as the “elasticity of being.” Our sense of self is continuous and schism-less, even in a changing body and outside circumstances.
Part of this elasticity of being is also the enlargement of our personal identity as we grow. We are who we are. We have always been who we are. And we too are becoming more of who we are. Embracing more of who we are. Discovering more of who we are.
For wisdom on this continuous “arrival,” I turn to the wonderfully titled Becoming by Michelle Obama.
On Changing and Never Arriving
Michelle Obama’s deeply reflective account of her personal evolution, Becoming, is sandwiched between two gems. The first is on the first page, where she laments a trite question we ask of little kids.
“I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”
She used to answer pediatrician, because she learned that that was an answer that pleased the adults.
She then lists the many things she has become in her “grown up” life—a lawyer, a vice president at a hospital, a director of a nonprofit, a working-class black student at an elite mostly white college, the only woman and African American in many situations, a bride, a grieving daughter, a stressed-out mom, and until recently, the First Lady of the United States of America—a loud testament that one, you can be more than one thing or have one career in your life, and two, it’s okay to change paths and become something different.
Our life evolves and our interests may change. We may find out that what we do is not synced with our developing passion. We may face the question, after achieving some goals, “Is that all there is to it?”
In all of this, it is perfectly okay—maybe even necessary—to change. (And Obama describes later in the book how and why she made the change from practicing law to service, one of the most valuable life and career guides I have found.)
The second gem is in her Epilogue, which to me captures the essence of the book.
“At fifty-four, I am still in progress, and I hope that I always will be.
For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end. I became a mother, but I still have a lot to learn from and give to my children. I became a wife, but I continue to adapt to and be humbled by what it means to truly love and make a life with another person. I have become, by certain measures, a person of power, and yet there are moments still when I feel insecure or unheard.
It’s all a process, steps along a path. Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.”
Becoming is an exploration inward and outward to discover deeper and more richly of self—this vehicle that we are given to pass through life on earth—and our purpose.
On Leaving Things Behind
If we are to embrace change and grow, by necessity we also have to learn how to leave things behind gracefully. Most of the time, the assumption is that we change into something better—in all sense of the word. But if we look at the human life as it truly is, in its whole scope, it is for certain not always becoming better. In fact, its end is always a decline.
Our health gets worse eventually, our mind eventually declines, our financial situations may take a turn for the worse, et cetera. In these circumstances, you are leaving behind a situation that is better into one that is worse. These are the more extreme examples, but little examples show up everyday too.
Don’t you ever miss something that you had in your previous life? For example, even though I am happy in my current life situation—being in a young family—I still get longing nostalgia, occasionally, of the times I was single or without kids. It does not detract from my contentment now; it’s not an either-or state of mind, but of both-and, of feeling two things at the same time.
The key is not to let nostalgia turn into resentment.
Surprisingly, to me, Marie Kondo’s advice on how to let go applies perfectly here.
In her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo proposes a way to let go of things that may still be new, have sentimental values, or are gifts from important people, but they don’t “spark joy” anymore when you hold them in your hands: Thanking goods for their service. She says to thank them for showing you that this was a wrong purchase, or that people cared enough to give you a gift. Their purpose is then complete, and you can let them go.
Who knew that you could KonMari nostalgia too?
It seems to me that life is not a cumulative experience, in which we gather up goods, family, friends, job, kids, until one day we declare that we “have it all.” We can maybe have some, some of the time, and we can be grateful. Eventually, we will have to let go of this having-it-all ness.
When nostalgia comes, we can linger in it for a little bit, grieve it if you will, be thankful of the chance to have lived the memory, and then let it go.
Because life will be a continuous journey of welcoming and grieving, of entering new doors and leaving worlds behind. And the peace with which we pass through these doors is the degree of how gracefully we grow and age.
I’m obviously an advocate for reading. But if there’s one takeaway from this post, it is this: You don’t have to read 70 books to live a good life. Not 50, or even 30.
This is not a post on the glorious benefits of reading, trying to get you to read more like Warren Buffet or anything like that. You can find plenty of that already on the interweb. It’s also not about how 70 books can transform a bookworm into a butterfly, happily ever after.
Instead, it’s about the lessons I take away from reading that much so that, maybe, you don’t have too.
While my annual reading list has been consistently long—about 40-50 books each year—something different happens when I hit 70 in 2018. This post is specifically about that increase, what I learned about myself, and about the books I read.
First, What I Read
My reading diet is quite omnivorous. I’m a nonfiction reader for the most part, covering biographies, memoirs, essays, self-help, business, psychology, social issues, and current events in my selections.
In the last few years, however, I added fiction (after not reading fiction for a long time) for entertainment and respite from the more serious reads. I love me some thriller and mystery to get lost into. But also, some of the books that have moved me most powerfully have been fiction.
A comment on reading goals: Being someone who’s very number focused, I deserted reading goals a while back and switched to more qualitative goals, like studying certain topics, read more international authors, etc. I enjoy this approach more, since my interest will naturally drive the reading speed. I report happily that the 70 books, a personal record, happened naturally.
So now that I’ve stated my data source, here is my analysis on what I learned from reading 70 books in a year.
1. Clarifies my favorite types of books
As I read in rapid succession, it becomes clear to me that I can gauge my level of excitement or weariness around certain topics or genres. This level of excitement clarifies the kinds of books that appeal to me the most.
My favorite kinds of books are those that talk about social issues, fiction and nonfiction, that concern themselves with the issue of a more just and equitable world. They are usually the most informative—covering topics that I may have never been aware before—and they stir up the conscience toward being a better human and citizen. I don’t get tired of these books. In fact, reading one fuels interest to delve even more. The Understanding Poverty reading list and series is an example of this.
This point in itself is not entirely new to me, but it is new in contrast to the next point, the genres that are now less important on my list.
2. Clarifies less important books
In contrast to the previous point, genres like business and self-help books get tiresome when I read a lot of them back to back. They may be great and exciting had I spaced them out more, but when read close to each other, they become trite, repetitive, and empty. The “shouldness” of it all is so tiresome. And puhleeasee…enough with the patronizing tone already.
Part of the fatigue is from information gluttony. It is so rare to be able to implement much from these books, hence the knowledge overload. The other part is my growing skepticism over narrative bias. Did the authors include examples that only support their argument, or did they investigate counter examples too? Are there other explanations for the same examples? Are the principles gleaned from the case studies really the right conclusions?
It’s not to say that the authors do not do the research. It’s just at the level of popular books, as opposed to academic literature and data-centric research, it’s hard to say. The academic in me often wants to do the cross-literature review, curious about the landscape of the arguments from various schools of thoughts rather than the single explanation in one book.
I suppose the way to phrase these first two points is that I prefer books that make me reflective over those that propose actionable items, books that touch my “being” rather than my “doing”, so that the doing eventually will come from a deeper inner transformation and not a simple hack.
3. Test ideas first
Just because I read a book and am captivated by it, it doesn’t mean I have to follow its suggestions. I don’t have to believe or be convinced of everything I read, just because the author is some big name who is well established.
I think it is good to suspend judgment when it comes to business and self-help books. Wait until you have investigated further and read alternative views around the same topic before coming to conclusions.
Why? First, not all ideas are right and true. As in the previous point, you have to ask the question, does the author glean the right principles from the data presented? Try to poke holes in the argument.
Second, not all of them are right and true for you and your situations. If you see an idea that stands out, test it first. Does the proposed principle hold true all the time? Or is it true just in specific circumstances? What are those circumstances? What are the exceptions? Knowing the limits of an idea—when it applies and when it doesn’t—is the practical wisdom to be gained here.
When you find an idea that has been tested in multiple situations, applications, geography, disciplines, and over a period of time, you’ve struck gold.
My practical suggestion would be to read older books that have proven to contain timeless wisdom. Many books simply lose their relevance a decade after publication. (For fun, try this experiment. Pick a few books published in the early 2000s. See how many of them have key points that are still valid today.)
4. Best lessons are learned from stories
I think life lessons are best learned from life stories: memoirs, biographies, and longitudinal narratives of someone’s life or an organization. They are closer to the raw data of life.
Life is complicated. It can be contradictory and ironic; it can’t be nearly parsed and packed in narratives of concepts. Cause and effects can be blurred. Some things we see as negative experiences may turn out to be positive, and vice versa.
5. Varying reading speed: Skimming better, reading quicker, and ditching books
The more I read, the better I can decipher the structure of the argument in many nonfiction books. The benefit of this skill is increasing my grasp of the books over a shorter amount of time.
Skimming better is an important skill, especially for students, since some books, while having good messages, are written with so much fillers. Seeing the key arguments in the midst of the supporting stories will save time without losing the book’s essence.
In addition to skimming better, I’m also better at ditching books now! If it’s not engaging or convincing, I can now stop myself and break up with the book. This is a new skill for me.
6. Mapping a network of ideas
Ideas don’t live alone. Authors don’t live alone. They talk to each other, if not in person, within their body of works. They also network and tap into each others’ work.
I start to notice how authors reference each other in my reading now. One can almost visualize a mental map of ideas that connect to each other. I play around with the idea of visualizing this map digitally, which may be a fun crowdsourcing project. (If this tickles your interest, please write to me!)
Mapping ideas is good in two ways. First, it helps develop my personal understanding of the concepts further. Which ideas are built upon other ideas? What ideas were new at some point, then become more mainstream over time?
Second, it also helps identify whether an idea is independently corroborated by multiple people, or just being repeated and quoted by multiple authors who don’t necessarily test them in a new way. If the former, then it’s worth taking. If the latter, then don’t be convinced too quickly.
7. You don’t need to read too much, unless you enjoy it
There’s a lot of hype with reading these days. Reading has become quite trendy, which is fantastic. But I don’t necessarily think that everyone should read 40-50 books each year, unless it’s enjoyable. Engagement is more important than numbers. And the quest is to find books that can be wells of wisdom for your life.
So in short, I’ve become a more selective and critical reader as a result of reading 70 books in a year. I hope some of these lessons can inform your reading too. And if you don’t agree, please comment!
What about you?
What lessons did you glean from last year’s reads?
It’s the end of 2018, which means it’s time for the second installment of the best books I’ve read this year! Click here to see the first part of the list.
If you’re curious about all the books I’ve read in 2018, check out this page.
This book tells the chilling story of the insidious conspiracy to murder members of the Osage Nation in order to gain their wealth. The historical backdrop of the story is the apportioning of land to Native Americans across this country. In the early 1900s, it so happened that oil was discovered in the land owned by the Osage Nation, sending its members to unprecedented wealth and opulence. Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed, many through poisoning. There were concerted efforts to rob the Osage of their power and money through legal, financial, or even familial measures.
The book’s narrative is anchored in the story of Mollie Burkhart, whose family members began to die one by one. It’s a tragic series of events that is part of this country’s history, one that also birthed the FBI.
I love this book because of the Asian voice and point of view, which is refreshing in the canon of American contemporary literature. The narrator of the book is a communist double agent, a man in between two worlds, one in which he’s immersed in the more Western, pro-American side of the Vietnam war, and the other in which he’s a dedicated communist. The duality of his personhood and identity is wonderfully explored in the book. And I have to say, it resonates a lot with the duality of identity that many immigrants face in America.
Bird by Bird is lauded by many podcasters I listen to. I’m glad I finally read it. Anne Lamott bestows upon us her deep wisdom in going through life, and especially in writing. Reading this book is like going to therapy. Personally, it helps me break through certain barriers and “internal filters” that I have allowed to constrain myself in writing and telling stories. It’s like Anne gives me the permission to do this. I’m still early on this journey, but I look forward to taking the next steps.
The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt is a recent publication that talks about significant cultural shifts in some American universities with regards to free speech. Yes, it deals with issues that are taking place on college campuses during the past few years (e.g,. disinviting controversial speakers, rioting to protest people with fringe ideas). But I think it illuminates a generational shift that is very much happening in the overall society. If you care, even remotely, about culture and sociology, this is a must read. It’s a chance to revisit what the role of education is all about, and what it means to have a marketplace of ideas.
Becoming is the best-selling book of the year, deservedly so, because Michelle Obama writes a beautiful and profound memoir. What I appreciate the most about this book is that the author isn’t “cashing out” of her status as the most popular former first lady. Instead, she goes deep. The book is deeply personal, deeply reflective, a testament to someone who has been self-aware of the development of her personhood for a long time. It is a book about identity, life-work, meaning, and passion. It is about a continual journey to become ourselves. I even get some professional counsels out of it, some I’ve never heard before in any other business/women empowerment space before. It’s such a worthy read!
Well, let me end this year with something light, but inspiring. If you follow Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tweets, they are just bursts of positivity. But also poetic. This book is a collection of his morning and evening tweets, with fun illustrations. It’s just simply delightful, perfect to say “Gnight” to 2018, and “Gmorning” to 2019.
Happy New Year! And see you in 2019!
Other best books lists
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