Owning and Doing

Time has a fantastic article about happiness, money, experiences, and possession.  If you have the time I’d suggest reading the article.  Otherwise I’ll give a quick commentary below.  Here’s a great excerpt from the article:

There’s been a lot of recent research on this subject, much of it conducted at Tom’s home institution, Cornell University (a lot of it by Tom). And the answer is clear. If you’re conflicted about whether to spend money on a material good (say, a computer) or personal experience (say, a vacation), the research says you’ll get much more satisfaction — and for longer — if you choose the experience.

I can’t agree with this more.  Sometimes I worry that I have too many possessions – two surfboards, a snowmobile, two snowboards, three bikes, two computers, one car, the list goes on.  However, all of these possessions enable me to have experiences with my friends.  The most happy moments of my life have been on my bike, snowboard, or snowmobile with my friends or family.  I’ve found myself uncontrollably yelling with joy during my experiences.  And I recall those experiences countlessly with those same friends and family.  I get as much if not more joy recalling these experiences as I do actually participating in them.

An experience, whether it’s athletic, food- or drink-related, travel, or anything else, has brought me far more happiness than my possessions.  I justify new or better possessions based on the quality and quantity of the experiences I’ll have with said possessions.

Your Gift

Before my grandpa passed away in late November 2009, I asked him how I can make a difference in the world.

My grandpa was an engineer in his early career, employed at Grumman in New York, where he designed and engineered weapons to kill the most enemies for the smallest cost. Halfway through his life he realized the implications of his work, so he moved most of his family, including my dad, to Afghanistan, where he was an engineering administrative officer at Kabul University. After a few years in Afghanistan he returned to the US, settling in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he earned his masters degree in public health administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He stayed at UNC teaching public health for almost 20 years, retiring to be a guardian ad-litem. He spent 20 years in retirement as a legal guardian for mistreated children, volunteering until he physically couldn’t. He died at the age of 83 from prostate cancer.

I hoped my grandpa could answer my question, and, to be honest, I was disappointed when he couldn’t. Here was a very wise man that had been an engineer (like me), traveled the world, raised a family, and settled into a teaching and public service role, where he bettered the lives of unlucky children. I thought he’d have the answer to how we can make a difference in this world. But despite his inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to answer my question, I believe I found an answer while attending his memorial service.

The service had an open mic, colleagues, students, and family members sharing inspiring stories about my grandpa, stories I had never heard, acts of kindness I never realized my grandpa had done. I don’t remember the specifics of the stories shared, but I vividly remember the epiphany I had. To make a difference in this world we need to help others in a way that makes us happy.

Prior to my grandpa’s memorial service I believed to make a difference one needed to devote their life to public service, like my grandpa, Paul Farmer in Haiti, Mother Teresa, or Mohandas Gandhi.  Sadly, I never thought I’d be happy completely devoting myself to others.  Of course the vision seems noble and good, but I couldn’t see myself leaving the software industry.

For a year I’ve thought about my question to my grandpa, about why he couldn’t answer my question.  I believe he couldn’t answer my question because there are an infinite number of answers.  We all live different lives, pursue different passions, and find interest and joy in difference practices.

I believe you can make a difference in this world by showing compassion, patience, and kindness to everyone around you in a way that fits with your own life.  Be kind and helpful to your coworkers.  Listen to people when they’re in need.  Help others when you can.  And most importantly, be introspective and proactive, constantly challenging yourself to make a difference in others’ lives.  Think to yourself how you’ve helped someone today, and how you can help even more tomorrow.  You don’t need to devote your life to those in need, but you can always help, show kindness, and bring compassion.  You will make an impact on the world, and everyone around you will be grateful for the gift you’ve bestowed on them.  And you’ll be happier.

Internships and the Importance of Diversity

Last week I was introduced to a UW CSE junior considering an offer from a startup and a very lage software company, both based in Seattle.  As I was providing insight around corporate culture and valuable career experience I realized that what’s most important for an internship is diversity.  Interning is the best way to quickly get a glimpse of a corporate culture or a certain role.  For example, throughout high school and college I interned as a product manager, software engineer, and marketing specialist in both large and small companies.  All of this diversity gave me perspective on what I enjoy doing, the type of company I want to work for, and ultimately how I want to start and pursue my career.

At least in the software industry leaving a full time position before a year or two doesn’t look good.  You should contribute at least a year to the company you’re working for, ideally two.  And the older you get the more specialized you become, causing career u-turns and changes to be more and more taxing on your personal brand.  For example, if you spend two years at one software company and three years at another, you’re now 27 or so, perhaps engaged or married, very specialized, and less likely to be daring enough to try something new.  I’m not arguing that people at a certain age are unable to try new things.  My argument is more around practicality.  The older you are the more specialized you become, the less practical it will be to try something new.

For me, interning taught me that I prefer working for small startups in a role that isn’t well defined.  I like coding here and there, thinking about product positioning and vision, helping customers with their issues, and solving customer problems with software.  I prefer startups because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, desperately trying to change the world, passionate about their work and their place in the industry.  Leave me a comment if you’d like to hear more about why I prefer startups, or marketing/PM instead of engineering.

Otherwise, I challenge you to intern as much and as early as possible.  The more diverse work experiences you can have the more likely you’ll be to find and pursue something you love.  And pursuing something you love is absolutely critical for living a happy life.  I’m truly sad whenever I see a friend update their Facebook status early in the week, exclaiming how excited they are for the weekend to come.

Update: Justine brought to my attention that trying research is also a great way to get a diverse experience.  Researching brings yet another perspective to the table, perhaps shining light on a career you never considered.

Update2: Take a look at Savan’s comment.  I totally agree with him that the my original argument about specialization isn’t true.  As you get further and further down your career path you can either become more specialized or grow a breadth of skills, depending on your interests.  Savan and I have certainly taken a broader skill approach, trying new companies and new things.  And several of my friends have taken the specialization approach, working at Google for several years and becoming uber hackers and code champions.  Thanks, Savan.

Gossip’s Effect on Happiness

Gossip is a crutch we often lean on in times of doubt and malcontent, a common source for heightened anger and exaggerated feelings.  Sure, sometimes gossip is playful.  But often we create gossip with the intention of making ourselves feel better, expelling all our thoughts and frustrations.  We consume gossip to help friends vent their frustrations.  And gossip can also be very entertaining, often influencing us to get the low down dirt on a date, coworker, or celebrity.  An entire industry exists around celebrity gossip.  OMG did you see what Britney Spears wore last night?!  She looked so fat.

Gossiping about our problems makes us feel better temporarily, venting everything pent up and freeing those emotions begging to get out.  However, gossip isn’t a sustainable path to a happy, more peaceful state of mind.  Gossiping about our problems calms our emotions for a short period of time, but venting doesn’t solve the root problem.  Let’s look at an example.  Suppose my roommate bothers me a lot when he doesn’t do his dishes.  (Matt and Jon, this is purely hypothetical.)  Gossiping to my coworkers won’t help my roommate to do his dishes.  Instead I should chat with my roommate, or, even better, develop an inner peace that allows me to be patient and tolerant with my roommate’s habits.  More on inner peace later.  Lastly, if my roommate ever learns I’ve been saying bad things about him, it’s possible our relationship might be soured.  Not only does gossip not help me to overcome a problem, gossip can also jeopardize true and meaningful relationships.

With gossip we reap what we sow.  The time we spend developing patience, tolerance, and compassion for others is partially reset when we speak poorly of someone else.  Instead of gossiping about a situation or person, think about how you can improve your state of mind–your attitude.  Use times of frustration to teach yourself patience and tolerance.  Challenge yourself to work towards inner peace instead of changing the world around you.  Remember, our enemy–or in this case someone or something bothering us–is our best teacher of patience and tolerance.  When you turn a tough situation into a learning experience for patience and tolerance, you’ll be happier immediately, and your long term inner peace will be maintained.

In closing I’d like to leave you with an excerpt from Shantideva‘s Guide, a neat piece of Buddhist literation I discovered while reading the Dalai Lama’s Healing Anger.

Where would I possibly find enough leather
With which to cover the surface of the earth?
But (wearing) just leather on the soles of my shoes
Is equivalent to covering the earth with it.

Likewise it is not possible for me
To restrain the external course of things;
But should I restrain this mind of mine
What would be the need to restrain all else?

Verse 13-14

San Francisco, My Home

At some point one transitions their affinity from their upbringing to their current life.  That transition has happened for me.  I grew up in Los Angeles, leaving to attend the University of Washington in Seattle.  My love is in Los Angeles for family, childhood friends, and childhood memories.  My heart is in San Francisco, the city I now call home.

The San Francisco Giants just won the World Series.  This post was originally motivated by the scrutiny I received from friends still in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers–the mortal enemy of San Francisco–are based.  The scrutiny caused me to evaluate my life, trying to define what “home” really means.  The old saying goes, “Home is where the heart lies.”  But what does that really mean?  Does that mean home is where your loved ones live, where your significant other wants to live?  Or is home a location that matches one’s personality, interests, and passions?

I’ve decided one’s home is the location of comfort, the city, suburb, town, or village where we all want to return to after a tough breakup, a long vacation, or a World Series celebration.  One’s home is the embodiment of one’s self in a physical location.  I like to think my persona is comparable to San Francisco, each desiring to be spontaneous, change the world with technology, and smile and laugh with friends and strangers.

I’ve lived in San Francisco for just over two years.  I want to spend the rest of my life here, or at least in a neighboring suburb.  I’m in love with this city: its access to the outdoors, its energy, its residents, its eats and drinks, its beauty, its character.  I challenge you to seek after a home when you’re ready.  Finding a place you can relate to is a powerful realization, a realization that will make you happy to discover.

The Dalai Lama, and My Path to Happiness

Nearly three years ago I was fortunate enough to see the Dalai Lama speak at the University of Washington.  To this day I have remembered his teachings, trying my best to be friendly, compassionate, patient, and tolerant.  Since his talk I’ve read several books by and about him, each as insightful as the next, my favorite being The Art of Happiness.  Today I’m grateful to have been able to see him speak again, this time at Stanford.  I’ve decided to share how I’ve grown the last three years with regard to his teachings with the hope that perhaps I can help some of you to be happier.

I grew up in a fairly wealthy suburb of Los Angeles, desiring to maintain my somewhat material lifestyle.  I even considered an investment banking internship before my senior year of college with the intention of retiring young and teaching.  I believe through traveling in Europe and China, along with truly believing in the Dalai Lama’s teachings, I have found an inner happiness that is stable and constant.  Let’s start with my travels.

Traveling opens one’s eyes to different cultures, each with different values and expectations.  For example, Denmark ranks the happiest country in Europe for several reasons including faith in government, good work/life balance, love of life, and many other things.  Witnessing the lives of those in countries like Denmark had a large impact on my realization that material desires are not only shallow, but they aren’t lasting and stable.  A material achievement, for example purchasing a fast car, leaves you wanting more.  Never will one’s desire for material possessions be fully satisfied.

The Dalai Lama’s principal teachings around inner peace are highlighted by compassion, patience, and tolerance.  True compassion for others opens our hearts wider than they would otherwise be, allowing for a momentum to build within us and drive us to be happier.  Compassion comes in two levels.  The first is compassion for your friends and family.  This type of compassion is more understandable and easier to contribute.  The second level of compassion is directed at one’s enemies, or those people that try to inflict harm on us.  When a human knowingly harms another such an action doesn’t go unnoticed.  Eventually this harmful human will be recognized in a family or community, alienating oneself and bringing upon loneliness and sorrow.  When anyone does harm on you, first understand that this harmful person is a human, striving to find happiness in this life.  Recognize that this harmful person is harming themselves, and exhibit the patience and tolerance to show this individual compassion.  Be compassionate because in the end knowingly harmful people will be lonely and unhappy.

Understand, too, that one’s enemy is the best teacher of patience and tolerance.  Instead of grimacing about a harmful person or situation, use such opportunities to improve your patience and tolerance.  Such qualities let us show compassion more easily to those who need it most, allowing us to open our hearts even more, providing more space for an inner peace and lasting happiness.

Inner peace isn’t a destination, though.  Instead it’s a journey we all take through the peaks and valleys of our emotional lives, where each peak we remind ourselves why we’re alive, and each valley we strengthen our inner self.  Through constant practice of patience, tolerance, and compassion we can grow happier, more peaceful and calm, contributing to our world with positive emotions, smiles, and laughter.

So I challenge you to be kind towards the next individual that causes you harm.  Recall that we’re all humans, striving to find happiness.  Use difficult times to teach yourself patience and tolerance.  Show true care and compassion to everyone and everything.  Warm those around you with your actions.  All the while your heart will open, allowing for a stronger bond with others, and a larger capacity for yourself to be happy, warm, and fulfilled.

I truly believe I’m happier when I’m kind and warm to others, when I see my actions cause others’ lips to curve, revealing a smile that connects us all together and reminds us all that we share so much in common.  We’re all humans, all striving to be happy.  I’ve surrounded myself with reminders, bringing to mind happiness as a journey and the truth that we’re all after the same goal.  I wear mala beads, have a jade Buddha next to my bed, and the following unknown quote printed and placed under said Buddha.

I shall pass this way but once; any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.

Photo credit.

Friends Worth Fighting For

One of these guys had chemotherapy for his cancer and lost his hair.  All the rest are his friends.

Seeing this picture on Facebook made me so happy that I decided to share it.  It turns out that one of these guys is my best friend, and this photo reminds me how grateful I am to have great friends and family.

“A friend is someone who is there for you when he’d rather be anywhere else.” – Len Wein

“Compassion and Wisdom” – Words of the Dalai Lama

Today I was one of a few thousand who was fortunate enough to hear the Dalai Lama speak. He visited the University of Washington to receive an honorary doctorate degree and graced the audience, mostly composed of students and faculty, with advise and wisdom.

Applaud started right as the marshal welcomed His Holiness into the arena. Everyone was clapping and happy. Then suddenly when he finished climbing the stairs onto the stage, the applaud escalated to a level that I’ve only heard at sports arenas. Students were hooting and yelling, clapping and whistling. It was almost as though the room had been filled by hundreds of thousands of new people, when really only His Holiness and a few apprentices had entered.

My first impression of the Dalai Lama was that of a humble and grateful man. He bowed and smiled as he entered the room and insisted that people sit down, for he was of no importance. He walked slowly with his hands together in the prayer position, smiling all the while. President Emmert and other high educators said a few short words and eventually gave the Dalai Lama a purple graduation gown and a large plaque. Everyone was applauding, but really they were waiting for him to speak.

He began by speaking his native tongue to ensure that his gratitude was accurately communicated. His translator said how grateful he was to be given this degree and to be given the opportunity to speak in front of a crowd of students. After his thanks he told a few jokes about his poor English and his degree for which he didn’t study at all for. He spoke slowly and carefully, and his English was broken but understandable.

He started by explaining that peace does not depend on the sky but instead on ourselves. Violence, hatred, and war are human inventions, and only compassion and wisdom can be the basis for peace. One must be truly at peace with oneself before sharing peace with others, and to be at peace with oneself, you have to be able to use your mind to expel violent and angry thoughts, which come naturally to anyone included His Holiness. Conflict is also natural and unavoidable, and his hope was that dialog would be used to unite conflicting opinions instead of war being used to destroy them.

The talk was absolutely wonderful and enlightening, and though I could put more detail into my story I chose not to. Instead of supplying more detail I want to share one of the stories he told, which touched me the most of anything he said. He was telling a story about enemies and people who do not have compassion or internal peace. One of the students who was elected to ask him a question asked him, “How do you share your compassion with your enemies and with those who do not have compassion?” He answered, and I paraphrase, “I do not know (chuckling). When in the presence of such people I try to smile, tell jokes, and be as happy as possible.” I can’t help but smile and feel totally happy when I envision his kind, loving, welcoming face say these words.

There is more that I’d like to say, but I don’t think my small blog post would do his message any justice at all. I instead plan to try and be good to my neighbors and respect those around me as est I can. I will try to not let anger, greed, or jealousy affect me, and I will try to smile as much as I can. I’m very grateful I was given this opportunity to be in his presence, and I hope that you too will be given an opportunity to see the Dalai Lama speak.

Photo credit: here and Jeff Prouty.