Life Update – June 2020

A Difficult End To Spring Quarter

Rewind to early June, the end of an online spring quarter at Stanford. In the wake of a COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests, a student-led campaign to provide grading accommodations for classes (mainly, cancelled final exams and assignments) began to surge throughout the school. While noble in its intention and successful in procuring those accommodations in many classes, the campaign ultimately led to a harassment of the teaching staff of the course I was a teaching assistant for. There were Piazza posts, Facebook posts, Twitter threads, and emails calling for the resignation of our professor, and in some extreme cases, slandering some of the TAs. Here’s an example of the kind of activity we were dealing with:

As a student myself, I empathized with the campaign’s aim of relieving stress on students, but that empathy eventually gave way to fear as the fervor began turning into outright harassment. My last week of the spring quarter was marked by late-night calls with the rest of the teaching assistants, trying to decide how best to proceed forward and stay sane. I confess: at certain points, it felt like I was losing my mind. Thankfully, I wasn’t one of the TAs personally named on public social media, nor was I the professor, who undoubtedly received the brunt of the backlash. I admire their resolve to persevere through it all.

Ultimately, this experience has led me to see cancel culture and mob justice in a new light. As the aims are lofty, the pitfalls are deep. At a certain point, demands for blood do nothing but serve self-righteousness and pride. Otherwise peaceful people are riled up to inflict pain on their perceived oppressors, whether or not the oppressors are guilty of their accusations.

I don’t think this couldn’t have happened without 2020’s perfect cocktail of isolation, gloom, and the resulting desire to do something about the mess of the world we find ourselves in. In that sense, I do not blame anyone. I myself could have participated in that same campaign had I walked in different shoes.

I’m very grateful for the teaching team banding together to support each other. I’m grateful for the emotional and logistical support the university admin provided to us over email and Zoom calls once they had caught wind of the situation. I’m also grateful to the many students of our class who later reached out privately, expressing that the campaign had gone too far and that they were afraid to speak up in case the mob came after them. And of course, I’m grateful for the counsel of those closest to me in that difficult time.

Updates to Previous Projects

In my last update, I talked about an open source project directory for students. We released it in mid-June, and here it is, live! https://contribute2opensource.herokuapp.com/. It’s the first step in a project to use metrics such as average commits per contributor to determine good open source repos for beginners to contribute to. I think my project partner and I want to move on to other things, so the project will stay in its current state for now.

Sadly, Leo and I decided not to finish the ergonomics classifier project. Our class made the project optional, and both of us were dealing with the fallout from being teaching assistants of the aforementioned course. I’m slightly regretful – we had done a lot of the work. Hopefully I can find time in the future to finish it up.

Present and Future

Summer is here! I’m currently working with https://cardinalkit.org/ as an RA. It’s an open source platform that streamlines the process of creating digital health applications (for example, HIPAA approval). My role is to promote and democratize their open source platform through creating online tutorials. Later, I’ll be building on that to eventually turn http://cs342.stanford.edu/ into a MOOC. Both the project and class are run by the same team, and I’m honored to be working with such amazing and talented people.

Looking ahead, I have one more quarter in the fall to finish up my master’s degree, which means I’m actively looking for full time roles that begin in January. While I’m open to the possibilities, I’m especially interested in smaller companies or smaller teams within larger companies focusing on robotics, hardware, and/or artificial intelligence. I hope to have interviewed and committed to a company by the end of summer. If any promising connection come to mind, I’d love to follow those leads.

Now Page – May 2020

Posted on aamirrasheed.me/now on 5/17/20.

We’re smack in the middle of Spring Quarter 2020. No matter how much work is done, it never feels like there’s enough time to just stop and smell the roses. What would it be like to be completely worry free about deadlines on a Sunday night? How much would I write? How much music would I make? How much more would I run and exercise?

This didn’t have to be my fate, of course. A single instance of procrastination on the quarter system can lead to a cascade of running up against deadlines, ad infinitum. To break out of the cycle, you have to work extra hard to make back up for lost time. It gets worse before it gets better. And that’s where I am now.

Quarantine

I imagine my future self will read this and want to know – in May 2020, during the height of COVID-19… how did it feel like? Day after day, to be under quarantine? How horrible it must have been to isolate yourself from everyone, shut away with minimal social contact. As an extrovert, it’d be difficult to imagine how this period could be anything but depressing.

It’s not, though. I’ve adapted better than I expected. My mind automatically urges me to reach out when I’m in need of social contact. I Zoom, call, text, or play online pictionary or Minecraft to hang out. It’s not as great. I get lonely more often. But it’s manageable.

In some ways, it’s actually nice. You get more freedom over how to structure your day. You can watch lectures two or three days afterwards, guilt free. There are less FOMO moments that lead to late Friday and Saturday nights. And everyone is in the same position, so pretty much anyone is down for a call.

Some strategies I’ve learned:

Project: Contribute2OpenSource

In my last update, I talked about coming together with my friend Andrew to build a project.

Our initial idea was to take advantage of the grocery delivery craze and build a grocery delivery service that sends ingredients right from your favorite Instagram and Youtube cooking videos (or online recipe sites). However, after about two weeks of being on this idea, we found several other services (AmazonFresh included) that had already done this exact thing. That was discouraging. We learned a tough lesson: due diligence for any potential business idea can save a ton of time.

Back to the idea table. Some more brainstorming. Now: because of various hiring freezes and changing job requirements, thousands of CS students have lost their internships for the summer. That’s a ton of potential talent sitting there, unused. Can we use redirect this talent to contributing to open source instead?

We started looking up how to contribute to open source, and the same bleak picture shows up everywhere: The only way to find an open source project is through haphazard Google searches, random blog posts, word of mouth, or prior knowledge.

In response to this, we’re building a website connecting potential contributors (such as displaced CS students) to open source projects. Our hypothesis is that contributors are far more likely to engage in the steep learning curve of contributing to open source if they

  • Care about the mission of the project
  • Feel like they can learn what’s needed
  • Will gain marketable skills

Will share more updates next time around =)

Project: Ergonomics Classifier

For CS231n, my friend Leo and I are building a machine learning model that can classify images of people sitting at their desks as “bad posture” or “good posture.” In the age of coronavirus, it’s ever more important to focus on ergonomics during long working hours in the same location.

Leo and I are of the same mind on this: Work on the project to learn about practical ML, and don’t worry too much about the project being groundbreaking. To that end, we’re collecting our own dataset and hand labelling it. I’m also learning Tensorflow for the first time. Really enjoying the process with Leo.

What’s ahead for me?

There is just under a month of school left. The next chapter of my life looms. I recently had a walk where I thought through what my goals are for the next steps in my career and how to achieve them. Here are my thoughts:

  • I was considering postponing my last quarter of classes until after school returns to normal to get the “full value” of my Stanford education (networking, mainly). But I have one more quarter worth of classes to take for my master’s program; it’d be best to finish it off and enter the industry instead of risking never coming back to school to get my master’s degree.
  • I want to found my own company someday. So I will continue going deep on the topics I care about, build things with the skills I learn, and communicate my process to the world. One of my goals in summer is to continue working on my robotic tank project from last summer. What can I make it do? After taking CS231n this quarter, adding computer vision-based functionality is high on that list.
  • I want to work for a robotics/AI startup after graduation. Since I’m done with school in December, my prime recruiting season will be August/September. So June and July will be spent leetcoding, refreshing robotics/ML concepts, and shotgunning my resume through my network.
  • My health forms the baseline of my moods. Protecting and maintaining that through healthy eating patterns, regular exercise, and caring for my chronic hand pain will remain staples of my day to day life throughout summer.

Now Page – April 2020

An old now page. Check out my latest.

What I’m up to right now

It’s the day before Spring Quarter 2020 begins. With COVID-19 showing no signs of slowing down, day-to-day life has changed dramatically over the last few months. Here’s a look at what my life is like right now:

Looking Back (3 Months)

1. Project Completed!

In my last update, I mentioned I was working on a project with my best friend Daniel. As of today, that project is done!

It’s an admin dashboard for Cortex Companion, an app Daniel is working on to democratize the the college consulting services his company has been offering for years.

Here’s a sample of the website: the statistics page. It tracks user signups, subscription usage, and lesson engagement.

App Statistics Page (using dummy data)

It’s extremely satisfying because I started from scratch, learning everything along the way, both on my own and through CS142.

Biggest lesson learned? In CS, it’s an extremely useful skill to know how to learn quickly because I had to learn so much in so little time. For me, the most effective method is practical learning over theoretical learning – essentially, learn concepts by trying them out, not by staring at documentation for hours on end, trying to make it all good in your head before typing the first character. (Have I done this tens, if not hundreds, of times over the course of this project?…. nahhhh)

2. Exercise

I wanted to continue swimming, but As COVID-19 began to trend upwards, that option went away. After 6 months of PT, I hoped it was a good chance to get back into running…

And I’ve been running two to three times a week over the last month! I’ve been taking it slow to ensure an injury-free ramp-up period, but despite that I’m happier than ever these days. O how I missed pounding out my rhythm on the pavement outdoors =D

Looking Ahead

School

Quarter starts tomorrow! So far, I’m taking:

  • CS231NConvolutional Neural Networks for Visual Recognition
    Convolutional neural networks (CNNs) are a class of neural networks that are especially useful for image data. For example, CNNs are widely used to identify objects in video. As a part of the class, I’ll be building a CNN-related project. Stay tuned for that!
  • CS448PHacking the Pandemic
    This is a pop-up class specifically offered because of COVID-19 that I’m taking with my friend Andrew. I figured that this is (hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, and therefore, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build something meaningful that could help society adjust to a new kind of living. Stay tuned for this project as well!

Now Page – December 2019

What I’m up to right now

It’s the week after finals week and yet another fall quarter has come to an end. Usually, I feel really burned out and want to vegetate after finals weeks. But not this time. I feel alive. There’s so much I want to do.

How I’m spending my time this winter break

40% Traveling (Chicago with fam & San Diego with da boyz)
20% Research
20% Self-Care & Leisure
20% Projects

Traveling

Chicago with family will be frigid and cold, but I’ll get to see my nephew for the first time! I’m looking forward to that and loads of deep dish pizza.
San Diego is the home of my alma mater, UC San Diego. I’m going back there with three of my childhood friends, two of which lived with me during my junior and senior years there. We all have intense nostalgia for the place. I can’t wait to feel the waves roll over my feet and the sand squelch between my toes. Warm and sunny places are salubrious (hah, I still remember my SAT words!).

Research

Over the last month, I’ve been getting more and more involved with the Stanford Vision Lab on a research project aiming to extend the idea of mechanical search using reinforcement learning.

It was really hard to get started – lots of terms thrown around and black boxes I had to maintain around concepts I didn’t understand. However, I’ve been consistent in trying, and I’ve made good progress in my understanding.

Most recently, I’ve really enjoyed the process of literature review, where we’ve been reviewing related works. A year ago, it would have all sounded like gibberish to me. It’s so satisfying to actually be able to understand the gist of a paper. I love what I’m learning so far.

Self-Care & Leisure

Books I’m reading:
Ender’s Game. Recommended to me by Esan, one of da boyz.
“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” (Richard Feynman’s autobiography) and Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. These last two books were given to me for my birthday by Leo and Constance, two great friends of mine at Stanford. Loving all of these books so far.

Meditation:
I meditate 10 minutes a day in the morning using Waking Up. I’ll be writing a longer blog post on why this is so important for me, but in short, meditation has and continues to transform the way I think and experience emotions. It’s quickly becoming a pillar in my life.

Exercise:
I’m reaching a high point in my fitness thanks to ongoing physical therapy for my back/foot injury (see previous now pages for that full story) and commitment to the pool. I reached my milestone of swimming one mile around November 25th, which was almost three weeks ahead of my goal! Physical therapy has strengthened my core quite a bit: I can hold a plank for 2 minutes now, something I have only been able to do at the peak of my cross country training in high school. I’ve also maintained a steady weight of around 153lbs through the quarter – also amazing and unprecedented. In short, I’m keeping up with my PT exercises every day and am aiming to get running soon. Got that Yosemite Half Marathon coming up in May. I’m hyped.

Projects

Coding Project:
Without giving away too much information, Daniel has hired me to build a project for his company! I’m extremely excited because a) I get to work with my best friend on a project together b) I’m finally going to cement the concepts of front-end development (I’ll be using React) with a project – something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. Truly cannot wait to get started on this more seriously after I get back from Chicago.

Music Production:
Over the last month, I’ve released two songs! The first is Aerodynamics, and it has one of my favorite backstories. I had a “car” phase recently where I was obsessed with racing games and car races (a love that I’ve had since childhood), and in that haze I stumbled upon a compilation of the Goodwood Speed Festival on YouTube. The deep sounds of racing cars droning by captured my musical imagination. Wouldn’t it be so cool to use those sounds in a song? So I learned how to us use Ableton’s Sampler to make a song based mainly on that YouTube video’s car vrooms. I haven’t gotten around to making artwork for it yet, but I will soon. Hope you like it!

The second is Bullet Train. I made some crazy looking artwork for it. Really learned how to play with the LFO on Serum, my favorite synthesizer, and Ableton’s reverb and ping pong delay effects. Check it out:

Now Page – November 2019

An old now page. Check out my most recent one here.

What I’m up to right now

Last updated on 11/10/19.

It’s week 7 of fall quarter. It’s usually a stressful time, but this time around, things are going swimmingly. Pun intended.

How I’m spending my time

50% of my time is focused on classes,
20% on what I’m doing in the future,
10% on creative hobbies,
10% on socializing,
10% on health.

Classes

I’m taking Decision Making Under Uncertainty. Check out our final project in progress!

I’m also taking Probability for Computer Scientists, a great foundational class in probability for many machine learning classes.

What I’m doing in the future

I’ve spent quite a bit of time this past month on how I want to structure the next year to get to my professional goals.

Since I’m aiming to finish my education at the end of next fall, I have one last summer I can do some temporary work experience. I’ve decided that unless something REALLY attractive comes along, I’ll be avoiding software engineering since I’ve been doing that for the last four summers. I’m applying for international fellowships, camp counseling, research positions, consulting roles, anything interesting that comes my way!

That being said, since it’s my last summer before I graduate, there are some software engineering positions that would lead to full time offers afterwards that I won’t want to turn down. Nevertheless, it’s an exciting path ahead.

Creative Hobbies

This past month has been especially productive on the creative side of my life. I’ve been journaling every day, practicing improv, making music, and picked up a new hobby of digital drawing! I’ll let the work speak for itself.

My first serious attempt at drawing: My favorite Pokemon, Zapdos. Turned out pretty well! Learned about shading and proportions, mainly. Unfortunately, I forgot the black feathers on the tail LOL. I’ve decided to let that stand.

My longest song yet! A bit repetitive in the middle and missing some mids, but had a great section in the middle where I added a breakdown. I drew the artwork for the background as well.

Socializing & Health

I’ve been socializing a lot and have been making tons of new friends.

I’ve also been super diligent about physical therapy and have improved the pain in my foot to almost none at all! I have to stay on the PT grind though, otherwise the pain comes back.

Most importantly, I’ve been improving swimming quite a bit. My one lap time has gone down from a 60 to 45 seconds. I’ve doubled the distance I swim per workout from just 5 weeks ago. I’m currently topping out at 40 laps. If I can get to 70 laps (aka 1 mile) by the end of the quarter, I’ll be satisfied.

Now Page – October 2019

An old now page. Check out my most recent one here.

In a nutshell: I’m in the middle of fall quarter of my second year at Stanford, where I’m pursuing my master’s degree in Computer Science. The classes are very challenging, but very rewarding.

In a nutshell: I’m in the middle of fall quarter of my second year at Stanford, where I’m pursuing my master’s degree in Computer Science. The classes are very challenging, but very rewarding.

How I’m spending my time

70% of my time is focused on classes,
10% on school-related things that are not classes,
15% on my health,
5% on everything else.

Classes

Decision Making Under Uncertainty – There are obvious implications for robots, but the class teaches techniques that can be applied generally. Lots of aspiring mechanical engineers and computer scientists taking this class, but also aspiring economists, doctors, chemical engineers, and more. The professor, Mykel Kochendorfer, is funny and entertaining despite the sometimes dry subject material. Check out our final project in progress – we’re creating an agent that automatically route incoming planes to their destinations while avoiding each other and other obstacles.

Probability for Computer Scientists – After getting my butt kicked by the infamous CS229 in spring, I decided to take a step back and refresh my probability foundations. I’m really glad I did. For the first time, I’m actually enjoying probability, most likely due to how good the teaching is. Again, our professor, Lisa Yan, keeps things interesting despite the dryness of the subject, which I really appreciate.

School stuff that isn’t class

Lots of socializing! It’s the beginning of the school year and everyone is willing to hang out and meet others. I’ve definitely been capitalizing on that. I love it. My extroversion is being fueled like gasoline on a fire.

I found an improv comedy group on campus that doesn’t require taking the actual theater department class. We practice twice a week. I’m really looking forward to honing my improv skills with these folks.

And finally, I’ve been spending time job searching. I’ve tentatively decided to take an extra quarter as long as I can be funded, so I’m looking for one last summer internship, specifically in small companies focused on robotics. Or maybe I’m going to do research. Or maybe I’ll go and be a camp counselor somewhere. I have no idea!

Health & Fitness

The biggest health goal right now is fix my back/foot. There’s a lot of nerve pain in my big toe area that gets worse with impact exercises, and it’s been getting steadily worse for about a year and a half. The best guess the doctors have is that it’s radiating down from my back. Thankfully, I’ve recently been getting great healthcare here at Stanford and it’s seeing some improvements.

On the downside, I’ve had to stop running, which was especially hard to hear after training up over the summer after a long dry spell. However, on the upside, I get to learn how to swim! It’s hard. I can currently do 10 laps of freestyle over about 20 minutes, and then my body is done. But I’m just starting out. I’m excited to make progress in a new sport.

Finding My Own Truth, part 1

Wow, it’s been a while since I posted on here. I’m looking back through my old blog posts and seriously, there’s some stuff here that belongs on /r/iamverysmart. Like, a short story about an unsung genius of the past who envisioned airplanes before they were cool but he’s too awesome so they jail him? Really younger Aamir? 

I bet future Aamir is reading this and saying “I can’t believe my past self wanted to cover up the fact they that were going to write another pretentious blog post so badly that he began with joking at how cringey their past self was, IN ITALICS, to show off his self-awareness. Now he’s addressing me, future Aamir, so that he could REALLY cover his ass. I can see right through you, dude. Ugh, makes me cringe.” Well, future Aamir, cringe harder, because you’re about to read your most pretentious blog post yet.

I’m growing older and have more freedom than I ever did before. I’ve had physical freedom for a while, being in college and having my own car for over a year now. But now I’m starting to experience financial freedom. Social freedom. Mental freedom. So many choices. Too many choices. So much information. So many people telling me what to do and where to shit and how high I should jump. Those are metaphors. Here are some examples.

I always have 20 more tasks than available slots on my daily to-do list. Obviously, I cannot decide on things randomly – I must prioritize. What decides what goes first and what doesn’t make it to the list? What is my system of prioritization? Why should I follow that system of prioritization? (that last question really screws with me) Well, you might say, that should be easy. Just do all your schoolwork first, and whatever time is left, do your other less important tasks. Well, that’s what I mean. What fills up the rest of my time? Fixing issues with my car? Reddit? Calling my parents? Writing pretentious blog posts? So. Many. Great. Options.

That’s just a single day. Let’s broaden the scope. I grew up Muslim. Then I had my years of rebellion in college. Now, I’m somewhere, floating around. I’m not doing the blindly-adhere-to-religion thing again. But, neither is this vague, completely opposite “do what you want,” “just do the right thing in the situation,” or “just don’t be a bad person.”

Also, how do I orient myself to strong trains of thought from the right and the left? There are very strong reasons why less socialism could be good for the United States. There are good reasons for the opposite. There are real reasons why abortion can be viewed as murder. Also great reasons for the opposite. Unhinged illegal immigration can be bad for economies. Denying asylum to people who really need it is not good for humanity. And these are important things to figure out, because it affects important decisions. Who do I vote for? What values do I help inculcate into my younger brothers?

But really, more broadly, these constant, incessant questions extend into every part of my life. How do I spend/save/manage my money? Which friends do I invest emotional energy into keeping contact with? What should I get better at? What path do I want to chart for my personal life? Romantic life? Professional life? Like, the freedom is overwhelming. No wonder it feels safe to just be hyper-religious and consult a big book of knowledge someone else came up with whenever you don’t know what to do.

The core of all of this, I think, is that my values aren’t fleshed out enough. Beyond basic things like don’t hurt others, I have a lack of strong ideas about how the world should be and how I and others should act in it. There’s too many questions now that I have all this freedom to think and be whoever I want, and not enough goddamn answers. That’s why I’m writing this. I gotta find my own truth. (That’s right, I’m using GOTTA. I’m cool.) Here are my ideas.

Solution 1: I can figure out the answer for each of these questions by trial and error. Try one side of the spectrum the first time, the other side the second time. Try to spend all my money. Save all my money. Think only Republican. Think only Democrat. Change one variable at a time. Iterate to success using the scientific method, golden instrument of the rational mind. See what turns out/I like the best. Rinse and repeat. Here’s the problems: One, issues aren’t black and white, so vacillating to extremes doesn’t work. You have to sample a lot of positions on a spectrum to figure out where you fit, which is unfortunately too damn chaotic, too damn slow, and too damn non-generalizable. Every new decision in my life will be subject to avoidance of responsibility till I have carried out my experiments. I won’t always have several weeks to make my decisions or form my opinions on new things. This way is unfeasible.

Solution 2: Figure out “who I am” and what I “do.” Figure out what my real political, moral, societal, social, personal and everything else values are. Generalize classes of decisions by coming up with a set of “good practices.” Every time I have a new decision to make, just reference my personal store of values and say, “Yep, here is my value to try something new every day. So, yes, Clarence, I actually would like to take a hit of that meth pipe!”

This sounds good (minus the meth pipe), but how do I find my values? At a small enough scope, values become no better than experimenting for every decision. Values need to be broad, but numerous enough to cover as many decision classes as possible. So I’m going to explore the idea of having frameworks in my head to choose my finer values. Whenever I don’t know what to do, I can either remember my value, and act accordingly, or if I don’t know or have a value for that particular situation, derive one with a good framework. That’s what I’m going to be exploring moving forward. Hopefully, developing this can help me become a more directed, confident person.

P.S. To Future Aamir. If you cringed hard enough, you probably didn’t make it to the end here. So, future Aamir, you’re a poopy-face. Said it. Right to your face. You just didn’t read it. Hah. Loooooooser.

Why I Live

There have been special moments in my life when I’ve felt like I’m on top of the world. During those fleeting seconds when I’m at the apex of my euphoria, I’m on a different plane of existence. It feels like I’m perfectly tuned to the frequency of the very essence of life, that I’ve truly discovered the meaning of life. I call it The Best Feeling In The World (BFIW).

The reasons and circumstances surrounding every BFIW one might feel differ vastly from one another, from winning a tournament to being in love to whatever else. But for me, the best BFIWs are always when it involves someone else. I mean that when someone else and I collaborate so well with them that it’s as if both of us were simultaneously controlled by a single brain. A communal BFIW. When you know exactly what they’re thinking and they know exactly what you’re thinking, and merely being in their company in the aftermath of whatever triggered the euphoria feels unlike anything else in the world.

I can remember one time my soccer team was playing in a tournament soccer game and we executed most amazing chain of passes, including blind back heels, that led us to a goal and subsequent victory over the other team. When we knew what the other person would do with the ball before they knew they’d do it. It’s that feeling that kept me playing soccer for most of my life. The communal BFIW.

I just reconnected with a close cousin this past weekend during LAHacks. I had gotten dinner with my extended family Saturday evening, and he drove me back from the restaurant to the hacking venue. We talked about everything from religion to tech to growing up in our Indian-American culture, but in a way where we enjoyed the fact that we were in each other’s presence more than the conversation itself.

I hunger for BFIWs. They are reminders for why I live, and why I love life.

The Ideal Spring Break

The stereotypical college spring break is filled with exotic beach destinations, an abundance of alcohol, crowds of scantily clad members of both genders, and endless music and parties. As a college kid living in a common culture with and driven by similar biological drives as most most college students, I can get why that kind of 100 miles per hour, drown-out-everything-else kind of escape could be appealing.

My ideal break is a bit different, largely due to how they’ve turned out in the past. For context, I was raised in a very academically competitive neighborhood, and to keep up with the rest, free time = opportunity to get ahead of others. My breaks were usually were filled with STAR, SAT II, SAT, and AP testing prep, completing homework or projects for classes, applications to summer programs and colleges, and various extracurricular activities. As most of my classmates know, this mentality was driven into us from the social narrative of increasingly difficult college admissions, to our heritage, and sometimes, even from ourselves.

The few breaks where none of these commitments dominated my time were spent in family vacations (which never were the do-whatever-you-want-lets-take-our-time ones, but always the lets-squeeze-in-as-many-sights-and-attractions-as-possible ones) or poring over the pages of the Qur’an for hours at a time, reviewing what I had memorized months or sometimes years before.

I don’t regret any of those breaks. I learned a lot from all those hours of studying, and to a certain extent, it did allow me to keep up with the rest of my classmates. I’m glad that I had the learning/growth experiences during those breaks, because I wouldn’t be where I am in life today without them. But were breaks ever relaxing? Rarely.

For me, relaxing is freedom from commitments. It’s not forcing myself to think about what I need to do next, but allowing myself to ponder whatever tickles my fancy. Relaxing is scheduling commitments at my own leisure and having the free time to make spontaneous events happen. Relaxing is working on recalibrating the rhythm of my life by eradicating negative trends I’d observed before the break and establishing positive trends to maintain during and after the break. Relaxing is also just being okay with doing absolutely nothing for a while.

All my life I’ve been told that time is a resource that must be leveraged to maximize benefit. I stand by this creed 99% of the time. I believe that the other 1% should belong to the gaps in which we get to relax in whatever way that suits us. It leaves us feeling happier and more motivated during the 99% of the time when those resulting positive emotions can determine our successes and failures.

What sparked this post is my happy report that this past spring break was the best relaxation I’ve experienced in years. We didn’t go out on vacation, there was no school work to do, there were no events to organize, nothing – just me and whatever I liked, whenever I liked. I engaged in one-on-one conversations with almost every member of my family in a way that would have been impossible on a trip; I slept early and woke up early, just like I’d wanted to do since the beginning of the year; I ran almost every single day, covering more miles in a week than I did in the last six months; I spent quality time with every distinct group of friends; I read for leisure; I improved my web development skills; I often did nothing for hours at a time; and much more.

I couldn’t have asked for a better week. I feel refreshed and ready to take on what Spring Quarter can throw at me. More importantly, let this raise the bar for what breaks should feel like, especially for the kids going through the stressful period of preparing for college admissions. And here’s to many more in the future.

(ps I’ll do my best to post once a week now, usually Sundays/Mondays. Thanks for reading!)

End of Challenge Post

Well, I did it! With the publishing of this post, I’ve officially written 20 posts in 20 days. I came across a lot of really interesting realizations doing this that I’d like to record now.

The first is worrying that I wouldn’t know what to write about. Coming into this challenge, I had no idea how I would generate interesting content for twenty days in a row when I was barely posting once a quarter. But once I got to the computer and opened up WordPress, I wouldn’t leave until something had been written. In my early posts, I wrote about whatever I wanted. When I started publicizing my posts and blog traffic increased, I started to worry about what all the readers were thinking. Does what I write matter at all to those anonymous readers? I started filtering out ideas that I think I wouldn’t be able to express clearly or wouldn’t be interesting to the average Facebook viewer, which I think stifled a lot of creative potential. I really had to work to overcome that fear of anonymous judgement.

The second is that I noticed I’ve been a lot more expressive since I’ve started this. Like I have less of an issue being able to articulate a point I’m arguing for or trying to get across. It seems exercising writing ability has opened up thought flows in my speech. I think it’s because struggling to write something that every member of an anonymous audience would like and failing to do so made me care less about what others think.

Third, writing a blog post was always on my mind, so I kind of turned on an internal radar that always searched for interesting things to write about. It was kind of like a devotion of a certain kind. Am I be able to unleash other kinds of creative potential by doing something similar to this?

Fourth, that writing every day for 20 days is just not feasible in the long run at all. I can’t count the number of times I’ve posted past 12PM – it’s been far too many. However, I really enjoyed being able to express myself here, so I’ll probably continue to post consistently, just less frequently.

Fifth, I think I kind of went through what it takes to form a habit. It supposed to be about 21 days, right? I had a gap in the last week, but I’m just gotten so used to writing one post a day now that it’s no longer the huge burden on my mind that I described it to be in my initial 20×20 challenge post (linked above). If this challenge made writing a lot easier, I could probably use this same concept of a daily or weekly challenge to kick start other things I want to start doing on a regular basis but “never find the time to,” – I certainly found the time to do this. Perceived social pressure from an anonymous audience turned out to be surprisingly strong motivator.

Overall, I’m really glad I decided to do this challenge. The next question to tackle is: what other skills I’ve wanted to make time for could be improved by another long-term daily challenge?

For now, though, I’m taking a break. It feels good.