How to live multiple lives

We only have a finite time in this world and there’s only so much we can do, learn, experience, experiment with, and try. But do you know we can live multiple lives?

Not literally though, but the simple act of reading a novel enables you to experience a different life, albeit an artificial one. But human history is already rich with the tales and adventures of millions of lives, why settle for an artificial one?

Ever curious about what it’s like to experience near death or a life-threatening disease, literally fighting for you life? Or what it feel like to be a drug addict? Or to grow up in a disadvantaged minority group? To be blind or deaf? Losing your spouse in your 30s? Going through extreme poverty? Experiencing PTSD? Fighting in a bloody war? Escaping North Korea?

Or on a more positive side, going to the moon? Creating a successful business selling shoes? Discovering electricity or the theory of relativity? Revolutionizing manufacturing? Inventing the iPhone? Creating a successful online store? Becoming a president? Revolutionizing space travel? Building a successful investment empire?

Through the power of books, biographies, interviews, and whatnot, you now have the power to experience what all these people went through, the power to take a peek at the lives of so many great people and learn from all of them. Do you know how amazing that is? With that, we have the power to live multiple lives!


On internalizing lessons

I consume a lot. Books, articles, blog posts, podcasts, food, audiobooks, TED talks, and so on. Which also means I must have learned quite a lot.

But having “learned” something doesn’t mean I’ve “learnt” it. Often, I find myself regressing, relapsing into old habits, (in)voluntarily destroying the changes I’ve worked so hard to build, and failing to sustain the lessons I’ve learned. Repeatedly, over and over again.

I already know the things I need to know, and yet, I coincidentally forgot about them when I need them most. I think I’ve written about something similar before, perhaps on knowledge consolidation or exploration vs exploitation. And yet, I still haven’t quite internalized it yet.

It’s like what Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” I may have learned 10,000 lessons, but I’ve mostly only learned them once, or a few times at most.

How many times did I learn about health and fitness before I started taking exercise and diet seriously? How many times did I learn about the benefits of writing and journaling before I started my first blog post or journal entry? Even this lesson on regression and not internalizing lessons, how many times do I need to go through it before I can finally say I’ve “learnt” it?

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, but at the same time, repeated practice and exposure is how lessons get internalized so perhaps I just need to keep at it until I reached the metaphorical 10,000 times.

Timeless vs in-the-moment articles

I used to really like timeless articles, you can read them anytime and they would still be relevant and applicable. For example, articles about personal growth or articles that teach timeless concepts or case studies. But recently, I’m finding more value from in-the-moment articles.

Not in the sense of the latest news or recent happenings, but articles that talk about the current changes we are facing. For example, I think everyone can pretty much agree that slavery is immoral and everyone should have basic human rights.

But imagine yourself as someone in the early 19th century before slavery was abolished. Perhaps you or your friends and family own a couple dozen slaves. How would you feel about it if you were told it’s immoral and unethical? What would it be like to read those in-the-moment articles where people debate the ethics behind slavery and equal rights among black and white? 

The same is true for a lot of current topics. Oil and gas, the energy crisis, global warming, animal cruelty, artificial intelligence, acceptance of the LGBT community, banning nuclear weapons, going to Mars, and so on.

While you could stick with reading timeless articles, I find it quite beneficial to learn about all the changes we as a society are going through. Not in the sense of news though, I still have no interest in those, but rather, the ideas and debates on what the world should be like going forward and the changes that follows.

How not to hone your craft

How good are you at your craft?

The easiest way to get better at something is by putting in the time and effort, everybody knows that. You shouldn’t give up at the first sight of difficulty, you give up only after trying everything and exhausting all your options.

How long have you been practicing? Did you try watching a few tutorials or tips and tricks videos? Taking lessons or hiring a teacher? How about reading a few articles or books about your craft? Maybe join an online or offline practice group and make friends with others on the same journey as you?

Well, you know all that. We all do. It’s so stupidly simple, we hear it every time. Practice makes perfect, it takes 10,000 hours to get world-class at something. And yet, I still can’t believe how fast people give up, myself included.

Let me tell you a story of a time I tried to learn calligraphy back in my middle school days. It’s a very short and simple story, it goes like this:

One day in school, I picked up a brush pen and wrote a few words. They all look funny so I try writing some more and they turned out worse the second time. After a dozen or so attempts, I gave up and concluded that calligraphy just isn’t for me. The end.

Well, what did I expect? Perfect strokes after 5 minutes of practice? Absurd, and after concluding that calligraphy is not for me, I simply stopped trying and went on with the lessons, believing full well that I’ll never be able to write with a brush pen.

And of course, things turned out exactly the way I thought it would. Despite the many practice sessions and lessons, I never improved, not one bit. Same for my handwriting, but that’s another story.

Fast forward to today, I think I’m going to give calligraphy another try. Perhaps it is my newfound stationeries addiction but I’ve taken quite a liking to penmanship and calligraphy these days. And this time, I’ll do it properly.



Taking the plunge into the unknown

This year, I’m jumping headfirst into the unknown. Well, I’ve already been doing it last year but this year, I’m just going to do more of it.

No, it’s not as scary as it sounds. In fact, you’ve probably done it a few times already and some people do it all the time. In a way, it’s exhilarating.

When was the last time you tried something you’ve never tried before? Do something without preparing for it and do it without a shred of worry, trusting fully in the process?

I don’t mean skydiving or performing open-heart surgery. I mean the little things, like going on stage and doing improv, or cooking with ingredients you’re not familiar with, or trying a new art.

Dive into the unknown and see what you can find. Eventually, the unknown becomes the known and you would have permanently widened your comfort zone. What’s the worse that can happen? Everyone laughing at you as you screw up?

Teaching to learn

Perhaps the best way to learn isn’t to simply read, or practice, something again and again. It’s to teach. If you can teach someone how to do it, it means you’ve learned it.

Teaching is actually a two-way street, the student gets to learn something new and the teacher gets to try something new. When you teach someone, you have to articulate it in a way that’s easy to understand. You have to demonstrate it in a way that’s easy to imitate. You have to show it in a way that causes the student to develop their own eureka moment.

Teaching lets you explore the material in a completely different light. You play with the ideas, stretch it, bend it, try to break it, and chew on it until you get something that’s easy to understand, or until you understand it yourself. Then, you teach it.

It causes you to work a lot harder at the material and you will learn a lot more than if you were to simply read, regurgitate, repeat. And let’s be honest, that’s how most of us learn. Read, regurgitate, repeat. The more you play with the material, the more you understand the ideas and concepts behind it, and the stronger the impression it leaves in your mind.

It takes time, it’s hard work, but that’s how to properly learn something, by being able to teach it to someone else in simple terms. As Richard Feynman once said:

Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

I was going to use the “If you can’t explain something to a first year student, then you haven’t really understood it.” quote but turns out, it’s unsourced and likely a derivative of the above exchange.

What is education?

We all know the drill, study hard, get good grades, go to a good college or university, get a degree and viola. That’s our current system of education. Work hard, get a piece of paper, and you get to go places.

But so far, is it working? What does that piece of paper actually mean? It means you’ve paid the money. You’ve gone through the process and you’ve been recognized or accreditated. It’s also a requirement if you want to apply for jobs, employment visas, and whatnot.

That paper doesn’t necessarily mean you’re competent. It doesn’t necessarily mean you know what to do, it doesn’t necessarily mean you now have valuable skills other people would pay for. It just means you’ve paid the money and gone through the process.

Companies hire people based on these papers and what do they do? They train them again. Most companies have these ‘graduate development programs’ where they train university graduates, with either company courses or on-the-job training, so they actually know how to do their job.

What the heck did we spend all that time and money in university for? Just to get a foot in the door? Just to get filtered out so companies will actually consider hiring us? Unemployment rates are climbing year after year and we now have more degree holders than ever. What does that tell you?

That our current education system doesn’t work? Our system for ranking and assessing students are mostly based on tests and what do these tests test them on? Memorizing facts that can easily be looked up online? Solving difficult math equations that serve no real purpose in everyday life?

We don’t teach our students on useful real-life skills like basic survival skills, how to cook, managing our finance, understanding social situations, understand cognitive biases, proper time management skills, how to make decisions, how to negotiate, how to learn new skills, or even how to earn a living. Why? Because these skills can’t be tested, they have no right answer.

But those are the skills that are highly valuable in the society we live in, yet we don’t teach them in formal education. Instead, we teach history, plant reproductive system, Faraday’s law, river formations, calculus, and so on. Not that there’s no value in learning such topics, they just aren’t as useful. Do you still remember those topics, much less apply them at all?

What exactly is our education system for? I don’t think we’re getting what we want out of it. The next question is, can we change it?

The illusion of knowing

Ever experienced the illusion of knowing? It’s a weird phenomenon. You feel like you understand something, like you intuitively know it, but in reality you don’t.

This is the pitfall of a great teacher. A great teacher can explain a complex concept in a simple and easy to understand manner. Her students would feel like they intuitively grasped what she is talking about.

The sad part is, she’s only giving her students the illusion of understanding. They would feel like they know all there is to know, only to find out they don’t when doing their worksheets and exercises.

To truly understand something, it is extremely important to consolidate what we learned and put it into practice.

A truly great teacher wouldn’t simply explain everything to her students, she would probe her students and get them to think. She would guide them and let them teach themselves.

Knowledge gained through struggle is worth more than knowledge idly gained.