Post-MHacks

What an awesome weekend.

Despite my best efforts to finish work ahead of time, I still had a lot to do to catch up after this weekend (including sleeping.. lots of it), which is why I haven’t had the chance to post until now. I’m a bit behind on my challenge, but no matter; two posts a day for the next three days will get me right back on track.

I read this really great quote about success yesterday:

Some parents are content asking their children, “Did you have a good day?” or “What did you learn at school?” Not at the Blakely household. The question Sara and her brother had to answer night after night was this: “What did you fail at today?” When there was no failure to report, Blakely’s father would express disappointment.

“What he [my father] did was redefine failure for my brother and me,” Blakely told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “And instead of failure being the outcome, failure became not trying. And it forced me at a young age to want to push myself so much further out of my comfort zone.”

Source

Spoiler: I didn’t win anything at MHacks. I didn’t even get to finish my main project. So here’s my theme for this post: What did I fail at during MHacks? What did I learn from those failures?

The very first thing I noticed when leaving was how bulky my pillow was. To streamline the flying process, I had opted to not take a carry on and instead boil down to the essentials and cram everything in my backpack. My pillow didn’t, so I decided to carry it. It’s made of memory foam, so it’s pretty thick, which made it bulky and difficult to carry, but I thought it’d be worth it. It’s like a gigantic sponge that sucks away your consciousness and blesses you the deepest of sleeps. After I experienced pretty uncomfortable sleep at HackGT without a pillow, I wanted my experience at MHacks to be a bit more luxurious. The pillow turned out to be totally worth it, but I didn’t know it at the time and I was constantly dropping it and letting it get in the way of everything so I made a mental reminder to take a carry on if my hands were going to be full anyways.

Failed at HackGT to bring a pillow. Learned to bring a pillow. Failed at MHacks by carrying a gigantic pillow so I wouldn’t overstuff my poor backpack. Learned to bring a carry on for the pillow so I wouldn’t overstuff my poor backpack. I printed out my boarding passes on paper when my electronic boarding pass on my phone works just fine (and I had a backup battery pack if my phone battery died). Waste of paper. Forgot to bring gloves, and my hands nearly froze solid waiting for the bus to pick hackers up from the airport.

Small things, inconsequential in their own situations, but they matter. Learning how to deal with small failures are a lot easier than dealing with bigger ones, and practicing the failing and learning process is necessary to deal with failures with bigger things. At least for me. Going in with this mentality allowed me to deal with the bigger ones later on in the weekend.

So, moving on to the bigger things.

We all met up at around 9PM on Friday evening – Dora, Vaishnavi, Bryan, Frederick, and I. It was a natural group here because the first three and I graduated from the same high school class, and Frederick was a talented hacker friend of Bryan’s. We all agreed to form a team to get together to work on our hacks.

After the Sponsor API expo and opening ceremonies, we all headed out to find a space to hack for the next 36 hours. It took us about 2 hours to settle in a spot, mostly because all the good spaces were already taken by teams who had gotten there earlier. Note to self: get hacking spaces at hackathons early.

We spent the next 6 hours throwing around ideas. Dora had some social networking ideas, and I had a list of different things saved in my Evernote ranging from calendar app reminding you of great things that happened in your life when you’re sad, to a voicemail to text app. The closest we got to agreeing on something that hadn’t EXACTLY been done before was a food app for college students that would suggest recipes based on inventory in local stores, cost range of the student, and cooking utensils available to the user (dorm residents like us may only have a microwave and refrigerator, while those in apartments have a full kitchen). But we quickly shot it down for not being truly original and just too difficult to pull off.

We only started to get stuff done when we relinquished the goal of trying to build a winning idea and instead focusing on finishing something smaller that would be satisfying to build.

So we ended up working on three projects – Dora and Vaishnavi on a Turmac Roll clone for iPhone, Bryan on a phrase guessing game for iPhone, and Frederick and I on a web application that would help users keep track of their extended family (born directly out of my frustration with my own ignorance of my extended family when I visited them over Winter Break).

Since Frederick was already well versed with Ruby on Rails for the backend, I hunkered down and began learning AngularJS, a frontend Javascript framework that would be ideal for the application we were building.

Halfway through the project we realized that the way we were writing our code made it almost impossible to couple together for the app. Frederick decided instead to work on an Android app and I remained working on learning Angular and implementing it for the web app. Because I didn’t have enough time to learn both Angular and a back-end software like Rails, I decided instead to opt for learning Firebase, a simpler way to manage data on the backend. I didn’t ultimately finish, but I learned a lot about web development. Mostly, how hard it is.

For the most part, we all remained close to each other throughout the hackathon, getting food for each other, reminding each other about event times, and helping debug each other’s code. However, our main work focused on our individual projects.

After the hackathon ended, I think we all realized how inferior in experience and knowledge we were in relation to the type of people who won. First place was an app that generated step-by-step instructions for any picture fed to it using Fourier series and on-the-cloud computing. Second place was a hack that broadcasted an Internet signal using FM Radio. Third place was a haptic feedback suit for the oculus rift. The rest of the top ten hacks and almost every single one of the prize-winning entires required technical talent, skill, or experience our team simply didn’t have. I was glad, after seeing all this, that we had all chosen to focus on what we truly enjoyed most.

As always, the biggest thing I got from the hackathon was motivation to become better. Achieving to implement even the bare bones of my web app was fulfilling enough to motivate me to work on it in my free time after the hackathon, which definitely wouldn’t have happened without the concentrated 36 hours, help from all the mentors, and the feeling of just being there with a thousand other people also working to build something they’ve wanted to build for a while.

Not shipping at MHacks may have been the biggest “failure” of my weekend, but going through the process, learning new software, making new friends and simply trying were my biggest achievements of the week.

Seeing the Future

I was covered up pretty well, wearing my beanie and my North Face ski jacket (because it’s jarringly cold here in Michigan for a San Diego-an accustomed to 70 degree winter days) and it was something about my clothing covering up the other visual cues of my body and the stubble and the lighting and who knows what else that did it. I looked in the mirror and saw myself – someone in his mid 20s, perhaps. I experienced a “first impression.” I looked a bit more serious, more rugged. It’s the first time this type of thing has ever happened to myself. It’s been 15 minutes since it’s happened but I’m already forgetting what it was like.

It’s usually someone you see regularly, someone whose mannerisms you are acquainted with. The vision might be triggered by the person in question wearing a certain style of clothing, doing a certain action, going about with a certain kind of hairstyle, carrying himself or herself in a certain way, or me, the viewer, looking at him/her at a certain angle with light shining on him/her in the exact way – it might even be the thoughts and mood that I may be experiencing at the moment – any number of infinite unconfirmable, unidentifiable parts of some abstract equation that all combine together to complete a secret formula unique to every individual.

When this secret formula is achieved, the “vision,” if I can call it that, begins. As soon as I am aware, I immediately fixate my gaze on the person in question, trying to preserve what I see. They never notice – they go about doing exactly what they were doing before the vision started for me.

From when it begins to when it decays a few seconds later, it feels like I can see an older version of their face. Overlaid on the perfectly normal face my eyes are perceiving are slightly more wrinkles on his/her face, a slightly more mature manner in their speech, perhaps a slightly different body language – in the space of a few seconds, my brain is augmenting reality, and yes, it looks like I’m seeing an older version of the person.

I’m always skeptical of things like this – there’s usually some neurological behavior that explains most “unreal” things, so I try my very best to store what I see in my long term memory to see if after the moment passes, I can look back on the memory rationally and evaluate its realness. So I concentrate as intensely as I can on what I’m experiencing.

Yet as soon as the moment ends, either due to focusing so hard on it, or some other cause far beyond my ability to explain, the vision rapidly decays in my memory. I grasp at it, doing my best to preserve it somehow, but it’s just so unlike anything I experience that I don’t think my brain knows what to do with it. So after half an hour or so, I forget the image. When I tell myself I do remember it, I’ve just tried to remember it so many times that it’s different than what is was in the moment (I think this one explanation for what happens) But I remember that I experienced it. And it just baffles me.

Is it what I think the person will look like in the future? If it’s some sort of unconscious thing, then what’s the reason it happens? Confirmation bias? But it happens so randomly, with no pattern apparent in either my thinking or surroundings, and the whole thing just feels so otherworldly and abstract compared to the usual day-to-day sensory input that I’m used to experiencing, and it happens for random people at random times (and the same person more than once, sometimes). It’s weird. It’s also oddly personal and spiritual.

I don’t know why it happens. I’ll never know whether my “vision” turns out to be correct or not. All I can say is: it exists.

A cool quirk of nature.

The Value of Wonder

Huge hunks of metal the size of newspaper stands begin spinning at thousands of circles per minute, applying force to a huge metal box with spindly appendages which, combined with the turbines, generate enough thrust to lift itself and the turbines and the huge metal box and its thousands of gallons of flammable liquid and me and three hundred passengers and all of our luggage ten miles up and thousands of miles across the world.

We accelerate down a strip of road one mile long and two hundred feet wide, and I’m forced back into my seat, as if I’m being catapulted forward. The landscape outside my porthole window whizzes by at a faster and faster rate, then suddenly drops away. Within ten minutes I can see our home city and all of its suburbs. Heck, there’s another country over there, like fifty miles away. I can see it.

Hundreds of thousands of square miles of civilization lie beneath me. Metropolises connected by thousands of miles of roads that transform journeys that took three months to eight hours.
I pull out a brick from my pocket about as long and wide and thin as my outstretched hand minus my two outer fingers. It grants me access to a network invisibly transmitted through particles that, on a logarithmic scale, are smaller compared to a grain of sand than that grain of sand is compared to the entire Earth. An array of microscopic containers emitting these tiny particles communicates using more tiny particles with a piece of clear metal made from the same material as that grain of sand that communicates using more tiny particles to this network, and all that stuff in my brick working together allows me to communicate in real time to anyone in the world and grants me access to virtually everything humans have ever discovered.

———————————————–

Marco pauses, breathless. He looks around. The jury members are asleep or unfocused, bored out of their minds. The magistrate’s face remains sympathetic. “This poor, poor man,” the magistrate remarks, addressing the sparse audience instead of the man standing before him, clad in a leather tunic and pig hide boots. Five minutes later, the gavel pounds the podium and he is carted away in a padlocked carriage to a ramshackle wooden building he’ll spend the rest of his life in. Mad people are unpredictable and dangerous. It’s for his own good.

Pre-MHacks Thoughts

I fly out tomorrow at 8am to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for my second major hackathon: MHacks. It’s one of the most hyped up and talked about events in the Hackathon Hackers community on Facebook, which with over 10,000 members is one of the biggest if not the biggest hacking community in existence. But I’m not feeling the excitement – to be honest, I’m scared of failure. And I’m trying to figure out why, so I can change that negative energy into positive motivation.

I went to my first major hackathon, HackGT, with feelings of being able to accomplish the impossible – unbounded enthusiasm, passion, feeling. I was (and DEFINITELY still am) the typical excited freshman unaware of the true grit and hard work required to ship a finished product – just blissful that I get to fly across the country for free to follow a passion, unobstructed with school or other extracurriculars, that I’ve had for over four years.

I came in with what I thought was an awesome, doable idea – a Google Chrome extension that would add saving functionality to Facebook posts.

Yet the project, while simple enough conceptually, turned out to be far more complicated than the teammate I found there and I expected. Documentation for Chrome extensions turned out to be very unhelpful, and Facebook feeds were an endlessly dynamic flow of content that required advanced Javascript/Chrome-specific software that were beyond the limits of what we could learn in 36 hours.  In the end, we walked out with a Chrome extension that added a save button, minus its functionality, to Facebook posts.

In all honestly though, that was the only downside to the whole experience, if that can even be considered a downside. I made some great friends and caught up with two old ones I hadn’t seen in a long time. I learned what it was like to fly across the country by myself, how to Javascript, how to divide up work between teammates, how to Git, and some ins and outs of how big hackathons work.

After I came back, I was still in high spirits. I had just experienced all these new things and I was still absorbing them. I was still enthusiastic about the Facebook Chrome extension project, telling myself I would finish it in the free time I had left in summer and during my first quarter of college. As time went on, though, life happened and the project never materialize. I became… ambivalent about the whole experience.

I’d like to call myself a hacker – someone who enjoys taking up problems and figuring out an innovative solution using hardware and software. I love computer science and making complicated things come to life on a screen and even in reality, if it’s hardware, by simply entering a couple thousand words into Sublime Text 2 or Vim or whatever IDE and clicking the run button. There’s so much pleasure and satisfaction with having the deep understanding of how a complicated thing functions. All hackers feel this way, to some extent. But here is a fact that bothers me: I don’t have anything to show for it. I’ve done tutorials, I’ve gone to hackathons, but I haven’t fully finished a project, 100%, all the way to completion. I’ve yet to complete a computer science project I’m proud of.

I guess I’m in that stage of my life where I’m trying pretty hard to figure out who I am and who I want to be. Hackathons are opportunities to exhibit this self-perception that’s tied to my career and aspirations and passions and self-respect. So it doesn’t feel right to call myself a hacker before those skills that I tell myself I have manifest themselves through a finished product. Now, it feels like MHacks is a matter of proving that this perception I have of myself is more than an unsubstantiated fancy.

It runs deep. But I think there’s another part of me swimming around here that I haven’t caught yet that runs still deeper.

My attitude towards failure in high school wasn’t so great. Early on in 9th grade, I received sympathy for expressing my sadness about failures, which made me feel better. As the years went by and as I failed and succeeded (just like anyone else who’s had a normal high school life) in more things , my friendships changed and I no longer received that sympathy. I think I started expecting that sympathy from myself, leading some pretty bitter periods of my life that I’m not exactly proud of (read some of my old posts, you may see it 😛 ) I’ve come out on the other side a lot happier, though I’m still picking apart and learning from what happened.

Being a hacker or a programmer is merely a status. At the end of the day, it’s a label for a skill set, and in the grand scheme of life, it’s as transient as the clothes I wear every day. It’s a passion, sure – it’s a potential career, sure – but I think I’m more defined by something more constant: how I approach every general challenge, every general emotional obstacle that may come across my path in the (hopefully) long journey of life.

It’s clearer now why I’m so ambivalent about HackGT. I wasn’t afraid that one experience would define me – I was afraid that the experience was symptomatic of a general inability to commit to something and execute it to completion. Which is definitely something far more serious. Looking at it this way, how I define myself is no longer a question of skills I may or may not possess at this point in time, but a question of willpower. Willpower was what prevented me from ever finishing that Chrome extension, not my lack of knowledge.

So here’s the deal: This weekend, it doesn’t matter whether I believe I’m a hacker or not. It doesn’t matter whether I ship something or not. What does matter is how hard I’m going to try to come up with an idea I’m proud of. What does matter is to what lengths I’m willing to push myself outside of my comfort zone to accomplish this goal. Because how I choose to approach this challenge, and whether I choose to learn from instead of be defined by my failures, is indicative of how I’m going to approach the rest of the challenges waiting for me in life, which outnumber and outsize MHacks 100,000,000,000 to 1.

At the first hackathon I went to, I did Android tutorials for 24 hours. The second, I tried for 36 hours to ultimately fail in finishing my first hackathon-worthy idea. This is my third hackathon. Will I continue this upward trend of improvement? Does it matter? Will I choose to be proud of success, or proud of effort?

I have no idea. I’m about to find out.

Sleep Deprivation

It undercuts every thought and physical movement I have. It blocks the flow of ideas in my head. To be sleep deprived is to cut all tasks in the day that aren’t due tomorrow, then finish what’s left with the lowest passable quality and least amount of time.

All my aspirations are too far out of the reach of my addled mind, and I subconsciously lose sight of the bigger picture. Without this, I lose motivation to finish tasks, and I end up in the very holes I was writing about getting out of yesterday, if I’m not very careful (and in this state, it’s hard to).

More insidiously, dark memories resurface at the back of my mind. Memories of being torn between emotions. Memories of entire weeks spent being torn between my ego and my health. Memories of torn hamstrings.

Normally, I soldier on through the miasma and end up sleeping late again. One sleep deprived day often leads to many more.

Sleep allows me to reset whatever switches I didn’t get to reset the night before. My mind is wiped clean of bad memories and extraneous thoughts. I can simply focus better. So, in all reality, the safest thing to do is call it quits as early as I can and hope for a fresh, early restart the next day.

Which is exactly what I’m going to do right now. Good night.

Time Management

Up until sophomore year, I was able to get away with using my time pretty much however I wanted. This was probably because of easier classes, not knowing of huge time-wasters like the Internet, and not being able to drive a car (which enabled long hangouts with friends and driving myself to places my parents would drive me before).

When eleventh grade hit, though, I was forced to start actively managing my time. I especially struggled with it senior year [blogpost] (though I did make breakthroughs [blogpost]) and last quarter, but I don’t think I really got a good handle on it until now. I’ve discovered, by trial and error, things to do and guidelines to follow that almost guarantee work being finished on time. This is as much a reminder/documentation for future me as it is advice for others. I’m certainly no authority on this subject; this is just what works for me. It’s just that I’ve been blessed with a really optimal-for-productivity schedule this quarter (more on that later) and when huge variables like that change in my life in the future, I’m going to need to look back at this. Let’s get right to it.

  1. Move from place to place as efficiently as possible (most of the time). At a huge campus like UCSD, it can take half an hour to get from one corner to the other (Warren College to Galbraith Hall twice a week for Linear Algebra. 🙁 ) Biking takes seven minutes. Each day, I save anywhere between an hour to an hour and a half biking from different meetings and classes. I can’t imagine walking anymore. (Some people like to longboard, to which I say good luck going uphill and godspeed for your inevitable injuries. My suite mate has taken a fall at least three times since the beginning of the year. His latest one involved a gash to his butt and an ugly scrape to his elbow.) Travel fast and safe.The other (far more obvious) thing to keep in mind is to plan your stops to be geographically close or on the way to your next one. Have class an hour apart but want to get lunch? Make sure the dining hall you go to is close or on the way to your next class. This restricts your options a lot more for non bikers, but in general, the less time spent traveling the better.

    Disclaimer: Sometimes it’s better to slow down and turn your thoughts inwards instead of towards your next task. If you’re not pressed for time, there’s a huge spiritual and practical benefit to going about a task at a leisurely pace that is easily overlooked in our fast-paced lives (more on that in the next point). I personally find traveling quickly on my bike exhilarating, so I don’t like taking things slow there, but I almost always eat my meals slowly because…

  2. Meal times double really well as break times. Last quarter we read a bunch of different perspectives on American food consumption and how it relates to sustainability. An interesting point one of the authors brought up is that in the past, mealtimes used to be a communal activity. Back when packaged goods were not a thing, the family would work together to cook using raw materials and eat together right afterwards. It provided them an opportunity to spend time doing something that forces them to be in the same room together until the meal was eaten. I noticed this too about my own family. Though we could be in the same house all day, we might as well have been 1000 miles apart while we are focused on our work and activities, for all the interaction between us. But our basic human instinct of hunger brought us together for a precious 15-20 minutes each day just to sit. To enjoy each other’s company. And talk about things that don’t matter.Between experience at home and the author’s perspective, I decided to extend my meal times to an hour, relaxing over whatever I wanted after the food was gone, from reading a book to talking with friends. Now that it’s been a week in, it’s definitely official. My break time are now almost exclusively meal times, and it works REALLY well. I’ve never found the inner burning need to get my mind off work during work time now – which means I’ve spent a very minimal amount of time on reddit and youtube and video games. Moreover, it’s just more efficient – mathematically, I’m simply tacking on an extra half an hour to each meal time, but it’s an optimal sweet spot to do so. The magnitude of relaxation it gives me is far greater than an hour of Super Smash Bros. Brawl or whatever else.

    It’s so strange. I tried so hard in senior year to focus on stopping the bad habit of wasting time on the Internet, but I guess all it took was allocating my leisure time to the right time slot. I’m really grateful I found it though.

  3. Using the SelfControl Application. I don’t really need this anymore because of 2), but near the end of last quarter I used this and it was the perfect solution to my problem. SelfControl unconditionally and irreversibly blocks any domain for a specified amount of time up to 24 hours (even if you uninstall SelfControl), after which the websites will be accessible again. This solves the main problems with other website-blocking software:One, for example, is that blocked sites are easily accessible via a password which, unless you have an accountability partner (and you may not be comfortable with one), you have to write down and keep somewhere. This never works because at some point you’ll give in to temptation, or you may lose it and screw yourself over, especially if you’ve blocked a site that also has a lot of value (Facebook, for example, which is a great PR tool and the most complete, accessible contacts list in existence).

    With the way SelfControl works, you can reassure yourself that a) there is absolutely nothing you can do to access the website you’ve blocked until the time is up and b) you are guaranteed access later – so it’s better to just not think about it and have patience. In practice, this mentality truly lets any temptation out of your mind, because it’s so much easier to let go of desire when you can reassure yourself you can fulfill it later on. By the end of the 24 hours (the time I usually set SelfControl to), I have almost forgotten about the sites I usually waste time on, while urgent communication through Facebook happened through my Nexus 4 (which I would keep in an inconvenient place when not necessary).

    SelfControl is Mac only, and I don’t think Windows has an equivalent out there [Update: Windows does have an equivalent called Cold Turkey. Thanks Keshav!]. However, this article describes a lot of other great software for both Macs and PCs that approach solving the problem for maintaining focus while on the computer in a bunch of different ways. SelfControl worked for me. Maybe a different tool will work betterfor someone else.

  4. Schedule commitments that require you to move from one place to another, and schedule everything else in blocks of work time. Up until about three weeks ago, I habitually made the mistake of trying to schedule each individual task (i.e. do Math HW from 1:30-2:00, CS Project from 2-3pm, etc). What would ALWAYS end up happening, WITHOUT FAIL, (and like an idiot I continued to beat the long dead horse), is that I’d be deep in the task when the end of time hit. So I’d have to choose between ending my task when I’m most productive at it, or pushing everything down by however long I went over time. I usually went with the second option because I couldn’t deal with having multiple unfinished tasks, and the resulting breakdown of structure just also broke down my self-discipline. The thought process usually went something like this: I broke the rules I set down for myself. If the rules I set down for myself work best when broken, why should I follow any other rules? or something like that.Blocking out a few hours of work time and simply prioritizing a list of tasks (it’s very important to write down ALL your tasks on the same page so assigned priorities are optimal) works a lot better, mentally.
  5. Figure out the optimal portable solution for when grinding is necessary. By grinding, I mean churning out 7-8/10 material in time for a deadline. I say portable because no one really knows when or where the time to grind will start – the solution cannot depend on environmental variables, and should be with you most times of the day, by default. Some people can grind without preparation, but I’m definitely not one of those people. For me, I’ve discovered that engaging in some power poses for about one minute followed by sliding on my Sennheiser Momentums and turning up instrumental-only electronic music with a consistent, repeating, deep baseline without the acuteness of dubstep, like Sun Burst by Minnesota, One by Swedish House Mafia, or the Sly Cooper 2 Nightclub Theme, all while ignoring all incoming interactions from humans and technology, is really effective for me.Something about that repeating baseline. It brings out some inner work-beast hidden deep within me, and the repetitive nature of the music keep riling it up until it’s taken over my soul and it expands until I become my task at hand. That’s when I know I’m grinding.
  6. Working out. Feeling good about yourself is closely linked with productivity – a simple google search will reveal that. As I expressed yesterday, maintaining my fitness is central to my spiritual well being. My grades were always higher during cross-country season in high school, and I always get more work done when I spend an hour or two in the morning working out or running. It’s a fact of life.
  7. Work hard (separately) and play hard (separately). I don’t think I understood this over-quoted phrase correctly until this quarter, because you can work hard for two minutes and play hard for 3 hours (you think it’s atrocious and then you look back at some of my days last quarter…).It’s best interpreted as working hard in the same proportions as playing hard, and the longer the work or play time is, the farther separated they should be. Planning on going to a hackathon this weekend, which will be almost nothing but fun and traveling and meeting new people and doing what you love for 36 hours? (That’s me!) Work hard the entire previous week with no long break times. No binging on Brawl or going to the mall. Work and play have to balance out.

    And does it make sense to squeeze in 5 minutes of work just before embarking on a weeklong adventure? Of course not! Nor would you be motivated right after (like three minutes after) the end of 10 hour brawl marathon to work on anything at all. It works the other way too. A 5 minute break after a 10 hour coding session isn’t going to do anything for you.

    So what to do in the transitions between work and play? Things that are mandatory tasks but aren’t stressful, or things that simply allow you to think of nothing. Like cleaning, doing laundry, brushing your teeth, shaving, walking nowhere. Whatever works for you. The transition is a deceleration period that can consist of activities that affects you in a way similar to a break, but devoid of thought.

    Work hard, play hard. Be honest with how long and hard you’ve worked, and how necessary each break you think you need is. Like I said earlier, breaks for mealtimes are great because you get to hit two birds with one stone AND they’re mandatory, but sometimes you just won’t have time to eat dinner. In which case, keep the work hard, play hard mentality in mind – the correct way.

And that’s it. A great thing to remember and keep you going is that productivity engenders more productivity. Feeling good about yourself and having confidence in your abilities to finish the task at hand is honestly the best enabler of continued performance you’ll find. The first steps are the hardest. Future me, I don’t know how far long your journey to your maximum productivity you are, but just follow these tips and don’t give up!

Working Things Out

I don’t know if it’s exactly insomnia, but lately, I’ve found it really hard to sleep early. I can’t count the number of times I’d try to sleep at 11 or 12 and end up laying in bed for two or three hours, wide awake. Last night, I’d had just about enough and took some Zyrtec to help me out. Knowing that I was guaranteed early sleep now, I relaxed a bit and, by examining myself in my last waking moments of the day, tried to understand why I wasn’t able to sleep.

My feet, calves, knees, hamstrings, quads, glues, lower back, abs, traps, biceps triceps hands neck face – all good. Is there something in the room that’s unconsciously bothering me? TV, fan sofa no one else is moving around smells? no it can’t be that. What’s on my mind? I can’t stop thinking about how there’s no way I can finish a full week’s worth of homework that 18 units of classes gives me in time for my flight MHacks on Friday morning. I rearrange my schedule for the next few days in my mind over and over again, trying to figure out a way to reserve enough time to get everything done, attend to all my commitments, and still get seven hours of sleep. What worried me more was that some tasks weren’t even definite – my computer science assignment could take anywhere from 4 to 12 hours depending on how many bugs –

Ah. Here is the problem. I’m constantly worried about my schedule, and that I might fall behind like I did last quarter (and I’ve secretly vowed never to let any quarter be as bad as last quarter – more on that sometime later). Soon after I realized this, the sleeping pills began taking effect and I slept like a baby.

Woke up at 7:45AM today, five minutes before my alarm (waking up naturally right before your alarm feels freakin’ amazing) The worries were still on my mind, but I decided to not think too much about them and do instead what I promised myself I’d religiously take up this quarter – working out at RIMAC (our gym, which, is pretty awesome (check out #5)) Ran to the gym, which is about 0.7 miles each way, did leg day, and ran back within an hour and a half.

I still have the same amount of work. Writing this post isn’t as important as getting my hw done, and here I am. And yet, I am more carefree than I have been all weekend. Working out focused all of my mind and body and spirit on the act of lifing that weight, mentally preparing for that last set (“It’s gonna hurt. But you can do it. But it’s going to hurt =(. Come on!”), . Seriously though, when you walk out of the gym and the post workout endorphins are coursing through your veins and you’re walking all bowlegged because you can’t feel your calves anymore and its a bright crisp morning and you have so much confidence for upping your weight just within 6 days, anything seems possible. Even 18 units worth of homework I have to finish two days early. Today, I’ve reminded myself that maintaining my fitness allows me to maintain other aspects of my life. Fitness defines who I am, and allows me to become who I want to be.

What an awesome way to start the week.

How to Be a Good College Dorm/Apartment Host

When I went to Georgia Tech for my first major hackathon, I had the pleasure of staying with an old friend I’d met through a Muslim youth camp the winter before, Waseem Hussain, and he turned out to be the best overnight host I have ever had. I just recently hosted my own friend at my dorm, and I tried to model my hosting after Waseem’s. Having now been on both sides of the equation, I’ve come up with a list of ways to be a good host for your guest (I will refer to your guest as “he” for the sake of brevity, but everything I write can be applied to hosting both genders), assuming that they’re staying at your dorm or apartment (I’ll just say dorm, but this applies for apartments as well) for anywhere between one or two nights and a few hours:

Brief your roommates and dorm mates of your guest’s plans ahead of time. This avoids the following problems:

  • Your roommates disturbing your guest when they are sleeping
  • Your roommates not having the chance to prepare for sleeping with someone different on the bed near them
  • Your dorm mates being ignorant of the idiosyncrasies and date of arrival of your guest. This will also be an opportunity to inform them of any idiosyncrasies of your guest that would change (in a positive way, of course) the way your dorm mates interact with them.
  • Your roommates shocked that you didn’t trust them, and feeling insulted they were denied the common courtesy of knowing someone other than you would be sleeping in the same room as them

This solution also has the chief benefit of getting sleeping equipment that you otherwise wouldn’t have had. Need an extra towel, pillow, blanket, or bed sheet? Letting your roommates know ahead of time will allow them to prepare their rarely used ones.

Your money is their money. While your guest is under your care, obstruct all of his attempts to spend his own money (within reason, of course). Your guest has come all the way from who knows where and has already spent a lot on travel and meals and supplies and bribes and who-knows-what-else along their journey. Allow him to relax and forget about his financial situation by taking care of his expenses while he’s with you. Another way to look at it: when your guest is under your care, he’s “entered your house” – if you wouldn’t expect your friend to pay for meals or amenities when he comes over to your real house, he shouldn’t have to pay when in, to them, an unfamiliar environment, which, to you, is a familiar environment.

Despite your best efforts, however, some cavaliers may insist on paying for themselves in the moment when it’s time to cut the check at the restaurant – to avoid this disaster, take action when you first meet them by laying down the ground rules, the first of which is that they don’t get to spend a single dime while under your care.

Of course, there are circumstances where it doesn’t make sense to splurge on his behalf. For example, you shouldn’t put yourself in the position where you approve their purchases – please allow them to spend their money as they please when they are by themselves. Also, do not offer to reimburse their $100+ cab fare from your dorm to the airport – if you’re reading this, you’re probably a broke college kid too. Lastly, if your financial situation doesn’t allow you to spend as much money as your guest as the most extreme laws of hospitality call for, be the best judge of how to save your money. Perhaps explain the situation – no one wants to be thought of as stingy or selfish simply for being financially sensible. Or just don’t offer – most people won’t have this expectation.

Never allow your guest to feel like he’s imposing on you. You’re a busy college kid, and that’s a hard fact of life. If your guest have awareness about when they’ve arrived and where they are, they will understand that you’re in the middle of an academic period and will try to not take up too much of your time, especially if they believe you would have otherwise used that time to study or catch up on homework. As the host striving for perfection, this is not an option for them. If he arrives at the conclusion that he did impose, he will feel guilty, uncomfortable, and possibly even misunderstood in his intentions for staying with you.

Don’t work on anything major when he’s under your care. Work ahead of time to finish everything you would have otherwise done in the time you spend not them. This will avoid making him a) feel unimportant b) not special and/or c) imposing. But take it one step further  – give the appearance that you’re still productive with him around (regardless of whether you actually are productive around him or not). Work on something minor, but make sure you do it where they can see you.

When I stayed over with Waseem, he went above and beyond and faked losing his apartment key so that they’d give him an extra one for a couple of days – and suddenly I had my own in and out to his apartment. I didn’t need him or his apartment mates to be there for the simple task of entering the small living space they’d set up for me in their common room. This definitely contributed to allowing me to feel like I wasn’t imposing on him, and I felt far more free and independent – just like I would at my own suite or back home. This obviously isn’t viable at all universities, but it was a thoughtful touch that truly made my stay extra memorable.

If you can accomplish all this, here’s what will be going through your guest’s mind: “I certainly had a lot of fun here with my host. We didn’t have to worry or stress about any pending tasks, which is exactly what I wanted to get away from when I left on this trip. At the same time, I didn’t feel like I imposed on him – even with me here and spending so much time with him, he still finished whatever they were able to when I was there. I even saw him working on his computer! This has been the best stay ever!!!!11!”

Above all, make your guest feel secure. Showering, using the restroom, sleeping, being in our nightclothes – these are examples of things we’ve always done in the comfortable sphere of our own living complexes. Now, your guest will be doing all of these activities in a place he’s most likely never been to, around people who he’s never met and may be uncomfortable around. He needs to feel like he is the master of his domain, that he knows every nook and cranny of the surrounding 20 feet, just like we know each nook and cranny of our rooms and common rooms. This spatial, self-generated (as opposed to verbal reassurances or persuasion from the host) guarantee of safety is key to his relaxing. Convince your guest he is secure by doing the following things:

  • Educate him on his surroundings. Show him around your living area. Show him the bathrooms and showers. Allow him to know the major components of his surrounding environment, so that in case he needs something important (like a sink or a toilet) he doesn’t need to search for it.
  • Without boring him, educate him on intimate details about his surroundings. Tell him about how the tap in your sink that’s supposed to provide an easily adjustable spectrum between hot and cold is in practice a flip switch between scalding and blood-freezing. Give him stories about major features of your room – the balcony someone threw up over, the dent in the wall when your suite mate got angry. Give him stories about minor features of your room – the small holes in the wall where you’ve put push pins where you’re not allowed to, the incessant blue light of the internet router that keeps you up at night. Tell him about the most mundane things. The more intimate knowledge he has about his surroundings, 1) the more important he’ll feel 2) the more like a member of the dorm he’ll feel and 3) the more he’ll feel at home, for the intimate knowledge you’ll be giving him is usually gained only by residing in the same place for many weeks.
  • Get your dorm mates to interact with him. Fears about security at night stem from humans, rarely from imagination. Your guest hasn’t had the time to build trust with any one of the 5-10 other people in your dorm (and maybe they shouldn’t!) Allow them to judge for themselves what kind of people their temporary dorm mates are. The feelings of security when generated from within are far more powerful than those generated by verbal reassurances.
  • Consistently ask them if you can do anything for them, and actually make them feel comfortable in asking you for something when they need it. The fact that you can get him an item he needs is not what matters – it’s that there is more security in knowing that anything you need is merely a request away. Also, there’s a difference in someone telling you they’re at your service, and feeling like someone is at your service. While you shouldn’t establish yourself as their slave,
  • Verbally guarantee and physically ensure his alone time. Whether it’s sitting down on the toilet, changing our clothes, brushing our teeth, lying in bed – there are just some things about our daily/nightly routines that we just like doing by ourselves. During these times, we are subconsciously “prepping” ourselves for the long period of vulnerability that lays ahead in sleep by processing the events of the day, taking stock of our body, and cleansing ourselves. Make sure they have a comfortable space to sleep. Once you’ve taken your leave of him, don’t keep returning back to him to check up. It feels motherly/fatherly to want to look out for them, but the action reinforces the idea that they are living in your space, instead of having their own space for the night. If you’ve done a good job of the previous bullet point, they will be able to take care of themselves on their own initiative. Make them feel like they have lived in your place for many weeks. This is especially important if your guest is used to having their own room back wherever they live.

If you follow all of this advice, your guest will truly feel at home.

Am I missing anything? Comment with more ideas below!

Slowing Down

For our required writing class, we recently read No Impact Man by Colin Beavan. It’s him documenting his attempt to live without impacting the environment for one year. He accomplishes his goal by accumulating practices that decrease his impact on the environment. He begins by committing to make no trash, and by the end of the year, is buying food locally, using his bike and rickshaw to get around, and turning off his electricity. In his local-food phase of his project, he bakes his own bread instead of buying packaged loaves from the supermarket. There’s one excerpt from his book that really resonated with me.

Bread-making, this quiet, non cerebral activity, provided much needed space in my life. It’s a break. It’s one of those things that takes the rhythm of your day and slows it down right to what it’s supposed to be.

I had my first yoga class today, and after the 100mph first week of the quarter, it felt so relaxing to spend an hour and a half focusing on my body and its rhythms. I gave my body attention that it needed, slowing my body and my thoughts down right to where I needed to be. It’s important to stop and smell the flowers every once and a while.

Lasts

Here’s a draft I saved last year that I’m going to finish today.

June 14, 2014

My thoughts are in a jumble, kinda. I don’t know what to feel or how I should have felt about graduating from high school. May the following paragraphs be an accurate representation of the cacophony of voices in my head.

This would be the first time in my memory that I wouldn’t bring a backpack to school. I planned for this in advance. I drank water until my urine was clear so I wouldn’t need a water bottle; packed all of my snacks in a plastic bag that would fit in the cargo pocket of my worn khaki shorts that I had specifically set aside for this day; kept a pen and pencil for signing yearbooks in the other cargo pocket; and brought my AP Physics C Princeton Review Guide and yearbook in my hands. Because this was going to be the last day of high school, the last day of Fremont schooling.

Yet it was the last time I walked outside at 7:50 AM and closed the garage door through the remote signaling keypad attached to the side wall. It had become a habit for me, these past six years in this home, closing the garage when I walked outside 10 minutes before school begins. This was our thing, our tradition between the garage and I. I walked outside, and then it closes.  It was the last time I would ever use that keypad to close the garage on a school morning. Repetition and familiarity had somehow made this mundane action sacred between the garage door and I.

The day went on with more and more “lasts”: the last time being late to first period, the last first period, the last time seeing Mr. Geschke as a student, the last high school “break,” the last time Mr. Aucoin would lecture us about our apathy and procrastination in studying for tests, the last time he would break out that Texan accent when he got sassy, the last time a high school teacher would ever chew us out for being lazy (honestly, we deserved it. But we were SSS. No one cared enough that last month.) Then finally, the last bell to dismiss us from school, the last end-of-the-school-year/beginning-of-summer cheer, the last time walking out of that classroom with the group of friends I’d made while struggling through music theory with them.

All of these “lasts” kept going through my mind and I kept worrying that I wasn’t cherishing this moments enough and I was focusing so hard on remembering the position everyone in the classroom, the things people were saying, trying to take a living picture with my mind – I mean, shouldn’t the last of anything associated with high school, my life for the past four years, make me feel the least bit sentimental? (And no, I was definitely not one of those “I’m so glad I’m finally getting out of this shithole” type of people. I really appreciated my time at Mission.) Yet I couldn’t figure out what made these moments so important. Sure, I would never sit down in a high school chair again, never ask permission from Mr. Gomez to use the restroom to meet up with friends… but so what? The absence of this busy, bustling forum I was standing in will not impact on my life or anyone else’s; we’ll all forget this and get over it in about a week, and the hazy, timeless ocean of summer will envelop us and we’ll be somewhere else. In fact, some of the “last” things that were going through my mind were so contrived as to make them truly idiotic – “the last time I’ll see Officer Pipp at school in the bell tower quad in these shoes at 2:55PM with this many days without shaving while the World Cup is being played in Brazil,” for example – I wanted my last day at high school to be memorable and special, but it was all so fake and contrived.

So I was struggling with this – realizing that the prospect of uprooting repetition and familiarity somehow made mundane actions sacred, but without a rational cause. Was it because everyone else was enjoying their last day, and I wanted to enjoy it with them? Was it because I’ve been too influenced by movies that always make “lasts” more romantic than they really are? Or am I just afraid of change? I couldn’t satisfactorily pin down why I was feeling sentimental and yet apathetic at the same time.

January 9, 2015

My friend –

Let me tell you what you already knew.

You did a great job remembering everything, especially that music theory classroom. I still remember where Young Jin and Alex and Kelly and Adrienne and ZiZi and Anna and Pranav and Allen used to sit, and that one game of Tank Wars you played with Young Jin. I don’t remember exact words from that day, but you did such a good job preserving each person’s personality – I can still imagine how Mr. Aucoin would react to you if you told him you’d like to use the restroom in the middle of his lecture.

Here’s a fact of life: Time speeds up. At least, it feels that way. I’m already done with my first quarter of college and it feels like I left home yesterday. So many things have happened in these last 12 weeks that I can remember barely anything important at all. I’d have to go look back at my calendar to jog my memory, but the nuances, the small moments? Gone. If they’re not remembered, they cease to exist.

It wasn’t always this way – sixth grade was positively monolithic in how long it felt, how many significant things happened. Our memories feel richer when we’re younger because we aren’t rushed – we notice every detail and unconsciously appreciated things more – just like you were trying to do on that last day of school.

I want to remember these important things. Memory allows us to examine our life in that memory. The content of our memories define how we view ourselves and how we view what we can and can’t do in the future. Humans have this deep instinctual desire to understand their identity and memory is a key part of that process.

That’s why lasts are important. When we’re transitioning between major eras in our lives, we have a few valuable moments before we change to take in and process all we know about the era we’re about to pass out of. Those last golden memories of music theory and high school, preserved through your intentional memorization of small facts, serves me now as a “key” in memory that reminds me of so many other things important in their own right that would otherwise have been forgotten: which direction you’d walk out of the classroom to meet up with Jonathan for those memorable walks home, the direction you came to the classroom from Physics with Geschke where you were so proud of yourself for making the mousetrap car, the songs everyone played at the beginning of the year on the piano, the satisfaction of finishing homework in class the same day it’s assigned, and so on.

I remember walking away from the garage door and looking around and taking the feeling of my weight-less shoulders, the birds chirping in the crisp morning air, the entire atmosphere pregnant with the possibility of a perfect summer day. A time with no worries, and four years of the unknown waiting for you 800 miles away in sunny San Diego, but only after the longest summer you’ve ever had filled with hanging out with friends, getting back in shape, experiencing new literature and movies, and so much more.

It’s a safe haven for when I ruminate. I remember, and I know myself better for it.

– Yourself