Find Your Word, Find Your Life.

10/31/16 FIND YOUR WORD, FIND YOUR LIFE

“This is what you need most right now.” As we sat in a dark, empty meeting room, a life coach’s voice guided us towards our “Word of the Year.” It’s a simple idea: You choose your word with intention, with hope, with a little courage. You keep it close to you and in mind as you go through your life, making decisions and living your day to day. And when things get messy — as life always does — “this one little word [keeps] it all in perspective, [gives you] faith that there [is] a bigger picture here, that [you are] part of a larger story. Most importantly, it remind[s us all] that [we have] power, that [we have] a hand in how [our] story unfold[s].”

THE AUTUMN SHED

Sitting there in the dark, I realized I’d already been doing this exercise for years with Kristel. We always give our years a “theme” key word, one that we observe has been guiding our actions. I began to think about my past themes/words of the year for the last few years. In 2014-2015 my word had been SHED. 2013 was a year that rocked me — I ended a 5 year, unhealthy relationship; one of my closest friends tried to commit suicide; the first of my aunts/uncles who had raised me passed away.…all within 4 months. I spent the rest of that year somewhat in hiding, trying to find a safe haven within my world. I awoke sometime in 2014 from total system-shock determined to change and get rid of a lot of things in my life. Just like autumn leaves yellow and fall down to the earth, I wanted to SHED the layers of crap and expectations I’d created in my life. I wanted to SHED unwanted weight that was making me feel unhealthy. I wanted to SHED expired acquaintances and relationships with people who had never really been there for me and especially not now when it mattered, and who I didn’t want to expend any further energy on in the future. And then I wanted to see what substance was left there, after the SHED.

So, in 2014-2015, I refocused inwards and began to unravel my life. Mo Williams has said that “if you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.” While I wasn’t ready to completely take off, I began to untie strings and bounds in my life that had made me feel so shackled and unhappy. I was getting ready to clear the slates so that I could re-write my story in a way that actually made me happy. I freed up most of my time from surface social interactions and obligations, so that I could actually participate in things that mattered to me. That left me with work, family, a few select friends, and my house.

THE WINTER SHIFT

As 2015 began, I was struggling internally with what to do next with my growing career as a corporate attorney. I was 5 years in, 5 years further than I ever thought I would make it. But I was still unhappy, and growing more unhappy with each new level I achieved at work. I had shed many things that no longer served me, and my corporate law career was the next thing that I needed to evaluate on the chopping block.

This was my winter, my most trying season. I rededicated myself to law, trying to make it work. I busted ass like I had never done before. But, despite my best efforts, it just didn’t fulfill me. No matter how hard a tree clings to its last leaves, winter will come, and the leaves must fall. The tree must fall bare, changing form and shape. And when that’s complete, when everything it’s got has been SHED, that tree can finally begin to SHIFT. Because, while it appears dead, the sapling is really preparing to birth something beautiful come spring, when it is ready.

I decided to change my behavior and take real actions to create the life I wanted. And Big Law just wasn’t that life. Everything I knew and had spent years building up wasn’t that life. And so, just like Susan Sontag, I decided that “I must change my life so that I can live it, not wait for it.”

SHIFTING to me meant putting some walk to my talk. It meant doing something about being generally and overwhelmingly unhappy about most things in my life. It meant not just continuing to show up at work, bust ass, give it my all, come home a shell of a person, eat some cold leftovers, sleep for a few hours, and wake up to do it all again. SHIFTING meant committing to evaluating the baby steps I was implementing until I found something that was solid to stand upon. In this time, Sheila and I did weekly “Life 101 Wednesdays”, where we would get together and work on our lives to see where we could bring our realities a little bit closer to our dreams. I attended seminars to try to grow my perspective in new ways. And I became more involved with The Angry Therapist’s new app, aptly named SHFT, all about changing your life into the course you want it to take. All baby steps yes, but important ones that taught me that my life didn’t have to stay on the path it was headed towards; that I am the only true author of my own story.

I accepted within me finally that my work would not work, for my life. That it hadn’t worked for a long time. That I’d just been in denial and hiding from my own critical eye. Deciding to quit was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in my adult life, requiring courage I seriously doubted that I had. I debated endlessly, cried, argued with myself into the wee hours of the night about all the what ifs and plan Bs. And I considered what would happen if I didn’t do it: the office I saw before me would be the only thing I ever saw again. This would be the epitome of my life. And that, I couldn’t stomach. So, in August 2015, I gathered up all the grit in me and quit. All those baby steps in winter were beginning to add up to a journey. I was SHIFTING, not even realizing it quite yet. But putting my foot down and saying “no more, not for me” was the critical step in changing my life. T.S. Elliot reminds us that “only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go;” and so, I went far, far away. I quit my life, in fact, leaving corporate law and DTLA and the rat race entirely.

I decided to take a year off — entirely off, from work, productivity, business, and life as I knew it. I spent the first few months just learning to feel again, becoming “un-numb”. I stayed in DTLA and did weekday happy hour, travelled domestically to help my sis find the perfect wedding dress in the middle of a freak sprinkler storm. In November 2015, I moved to Singapore for 2 months to hang out with my mom. I hadn’t spent that much time with her since I was 18. It was incredible to see her new life over there, live some of it alongside with her. We went to Thailand and crossed off the Yi Peng Sky Lantern festival off my bucket list together, sending candle-lit paper lanterns into the heavens with our deepest wishes and hopes. We ate everything under the sun, and then went to Vietnam to learn more about who and where we come from. Vinh and I returned to Bali and fell in love with the sacred, intricate beauty of the place.

When I got back to LA, I realized Rio was coming up in 3 short weeks. It was happening – I was going to move to Rio de Janeiro, and Vinh was coming with me. These were all the little ideas I’d dreamed up months ago, now brought forth and becoming reality. Vinh and I SHIFTED again, this time moving our entire lives to South America. We arrived just in time for Carnaval, even dancing in the parade as St. George for Estácio de Sá. We took it slow, intentional, and we found that we connected with each other in a way we couldn’t do back in LA. We set up a life we both liked — nightly walks along Copacabana beach, going to the gym daily, eating healthy and cooking at home. Acai and farmers markets replaced McDonald’s and vegging in front of the TV. We were truly, fully happy. When we traveled to incredible Patagonia, we walked on glaciers and discovered a magical lake, hidden amongst ancient giants. We jumped in countless waterfalls, kissing life and having picnics in the moss. We swam like mermaids in bioluminescence on a black sand beach in paradise, under the stars. We felt alive. We shared these moments with so many beautiful people in the same messy life-stage as us — people leaving behind the certainty of a past life that just didn’t fit anymore, searching for something new and exciting, and finding themselves doing somersaults in the mess of it all. Living. Breathing. Loving each other. And figuring it out along the way.

As we SHIFTED, changed, and established a new lifestyle, I felt freer, happier, healthier, and more me than I had in over a decade. This continued as we left our beloved Marvelous Rio for the Amazon. 1 month at LPAC, and I was in love all over again — with the jungle, with nature, with being outside. But most of all, I fell in love with being surrounded by good people living their dreams and changing the world. Seriously, changing the world, in ways I can see and believe in. I left the jungle feeling amazed and inspired. Along the way, I also learned to machete (the best survival tool ever), felt the hairs on my neck stand up hearing howler monkeys calling to their tribes in the darkness, and cradled poisonous Amazon frogs and snakes with my bare hands. I learned how very little I need to survive (literally and figuratively) and be happy. And I found some elusive inner peace watching the sun set over the rainforest while wading in the Las Piedras River.

THE SPRING COMMITMENT

When it was all over, we headed back home to LA. As the wheels of the plane touched down at LAX, I begged Vinh to promise me nothing would be as before; I needed to cement the changes we had begun in South America. I had glimpsed and lived a life I loved, and I couldn’t go back to a half-existence.

But home was full of those old things, weddings and “real” life, obligations, family, friends, familiar food. It was easy to lose track of what we left for, and to fall into old patterns. And, I didn’t know what my next step should be. There was no upcoming trip or volunteer experience to look forwards to, no amazing journeys planned. Just life as I knew it before this insane SHIFT in me started. I was back; everything looked the same and I worried I would quickly revert to pre-SHED, pre-SHIFT me.

While I pondered all of this in a mini-existential crisis and funk, I attended AWAKE, the SHFT life and fitness pop up that The Angry Therapist was putting on. Life Coach Pam Davis ran a workshop there about finding your word. Piqued, I sat there, and she began “What do you need right now?” I thought about health, and the other usual NYE resolution answers. And then It dawned on me, I need to COMMIT. This is where I realized that Kristel and I have been doing the “word of the year” for 6 years already, just framing it as a key word rather than a word with force and intention. But look at what those words had already done for me! I had SHED all the unnecessary things in my life – people, weight, clutter, clothes, experiences, careers. I had SHED my old expectations, the “shoulds” from society. And after all that SHED, I was left with space for my truer self to emerge, act, and take over.

Then I had decided to SHIFT. I informed myself and gave myself the freedom and space to change everything, and see what it revealed about me. I gave myself a lifetime of experiences in that year off, seeing where each one would lead me. This all hit me like a tidal wave; the power of these themes, these words of the year, to help me create the changes I wanted to see. I had wanted to SHED and SHIFT and I had, in big, scary, meaningful ways. More importantly, I realized that it was time to move on to my next word. It came to me slowly, but with a voice I could not ignore: COMMIT. COMMIT to myself, to a new life, to changes in my world. If I don’t want this next stage of life to look like the last, I have to make some real COMMITMENTS to make my shifts more permanent.

Step one – get rid of my big city mortgage to ensure I won’t have to work big city hours to maintain that big city lifestyle. I closed escrow on Evo 1104 in October 2016. Step two – join the gym and actually get healthy. Bought a 2 year plan at 24 hour fitness so I can go despite bouncing between Sacramento, San Jose, and Los Angeles. And, I’ve rekindled a love for zumba, yoga, and sunset runs. Step three – think about what I want to do, what would make me happy. This one is hazier, but I think I would be really happy as a conservation journalist. I’d love to accompany scientific expeditions to the depths of the jungles, uncharted oceans, tallest mountains. I’d love to see the wild, wild world we’re losing everyday, and tell it’s story in a way that is accessible to others, that makes them see it and care about it. How to get from my aunt’s couch back to the jungle? — that’s probably steps four to one hundred. I’m sure it won’t be as clear as to be able to name it in steps, but I am ready for this to be the next stage in my personal growth.

As my favorite writer Mark Manson says, the third stage of life is COMMITMENT:

“Once you’ve pushed your own boundaries and either found your limitations (i.e.,  athletics, the culinary arts) or found the diminishing returns of certain activities (i.e., partying, video games, masturbation) then you are left with what’s both a) actually important to you, and b) what you’re not terrible at. Now it’s time to make your dent in the world.”

“Stage Three is the great consolidation of one’s life. Out go the friends who are draining you and holding you back. Out go the activities and hobbies that are a mindless waste of time. Out go the old dreams that are clearly not coming true anytime soon.

“Then you double down on what you’re best at and what is best to you. You double down on the most important relationships in your life. You double down on a single mission in life, whether that’s to work on the world’s energy crisis or to be a bitching digital artist or to become an expert in brains or have a bunch of snotty, drooling children. Whatever it is, Stage Three is when you get it done.”

And so, I find myself here, one foot still in my mind-blowing year off and one stepping forwards into my uncertain future. I know now that those 8 months in Asia and South America had been taking me on the ride of my life, helping me find myself. It wasn’t just me running away. Rather, the turmoil of quitting had just been the end of winter, and all of this had been my hibernation and growing. Christine Caine teaches us, “sometimes when you’re in a dark place, you think you’ve been buried, but actually you’ve been planted.” I’ve shifted and changed so much already, and now it’s time to direct those changes towards growing into a new self. I still don’t know the exact path yet, but I am closing old doors to push myself forwards into new light. And, guided by my new word of the year, I am committing to making the shed and shift all worth it. No one knows how this will all turn out; but at least now, I can choose my words and actions with intention, and boldly take some steps to find out what my future might hold.

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Blue Roses

We had blue roses at my dad’s funeral. For some reason, he liked this made-up flower, so my mom asked the florist to make one bouquet of food-coloring-stained blue roses for my mom, my sister, and I to lay on top of his casket.

That was 15 years ago. It is insane to me how fast the years have whizzed by. I’ve been dreading this death anniversary in particular, because it marks the threshold of when dad will have been gone for as many years as he was alive for Vickie; she was only 15 when he died. And that means that my threshold — 17 years — will be here in a few short breaths. He was our hero, and he was gone in an instant. As I approach my mid-30s, I realize just how unfairly young he died — 48 years old. I have no idea how it will feel to surpass my dad in age, but I know that year will creep up on me faster than I am prepared for as well. 

Ironically or coincidentally, as we honor my dad today, our whole Duong family is gathered around my Ongie, my dad’s dad, who just went home on hospice care. And just like that, the day that I was so worried would floor me has floored me in an entirely different way. And just like 15 years ago, I am watching my mom move with untold strength, grace, poise, and tact as she navigates an impossible situation while still watching out for me and Vickie. I am literally amazed by her each and every day, and am so grateful for her guidance, presence, and spirit. I am witnessing the true depths of a mother’s and wife’s love, and I am just in awe. After my dad died, she made sure that his dad, my Ongie, became an even bigger part of our life. Ong was with us on every family vacation, came to holiday parties (whether a Duong family gathering or a Nguyen one), and enjoyed more random, casual dinners together than I can remember. I joined him on many of his photography expeditions — trips with his Vietnamese grandpa’s photography club  — to take pictures of the fall foliage in New Hampshire, to the flower fields in Lompoc, to the sand dunes in death valley. We fulfilled his lifelong dream to go see Paris, and to his dismay, the streets were not actually made of gold. Vickie and Ong had a standing weekly date to watch Dancing with the Stars together. I am so grateful that mom created the opportunities for me and Vickie to love and know Ong as a proxy for dad. As a result, Ong became the closet thing we’ve have to dad for the last 15 years: aside from looking amazingly identical and giving me an idea of what my dad would’ve looked like as a cute old grandpa, they share that same characteristic Duong disposition: quiet and reserved, but playful and loving underneath. I like to think dad would have been a lot like Ong if he had aged, and through Ong, I feel like we got to know dad a little better.

And now more than ever, in this difficult time, I am reminded even more of mom’s greatest lesson to us: be good to those you love while they are alive. Life is short, time is precious, and nobody is promised tomorrow. I am thankful that instead of wishing that we had taken Ong to more places, that I can sit at his bedside and talk about all the cool things we’ve done and memories we’ve shared together. I’m thankful that we took him on so many trips that he didn’t feel the need to travel anymore. And I’m thankful that I had so many beautiful years with him, getting to know and love him in the way that I never got to know my dad.

So today, instead of mourning dad, I am also celebrating my Ong, and expressing eternal gratitude for the most amazing woman I know, without whom I never could have made it through the last 15 years.

family

palm

Loving my 30’s

“Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.”

For the longest time, I thought I couldn’t quit law because I’d be the 26-year-old fighting against younger, meaner, leaner, hungrier 22-year-olds. Then I feared I couldn’t hack it as the 28-year-old trying to restart my life. At 30, I began to doubt if I would ever leave, having already invested too much time, money, and energy into building my career and life to fit what everyone wanted for me. And then, at 31 and a half years old, I reached the limit of what I could tolerate of my old corporate life, and I quit. It seemed to happen overnight, but it had been a long time coming. I did it for me – I deserve to work in a place where people celebrate me and my unique qualities, not just tolerate me. I wanted to feel like my full self all the time, instead of just after work. I couldn’t keep living two fully separate lives (work Tiff and outside Tiff), pretending like the pain of one didn’t seep into the other. And I needed to stop having to play so hard to forget how much work had taken from me. I wanted to stop feeling like I had to come in and chip a little bit off my soul everyday to be able to make it through to sundown.

So now, I find myself here in the Amazon, in the midst of a year off, 32-years-old and the oldest person at this research camp by at least 6 years. The oldest coordinator here is 26; my fellow herpetofauna intern turns 21 in a month. I struggle to cross fallen trees while they seem to leap over them with ease. Sometimes, I’ll have to nap to recover from our 10-15 mile daily hikes. I definitely am not last man standing when we have our “wild jungle parties.” And I’m always the first one with random back or hip pains. I’m exactly where I feared I would be for the last 5 years, but now that I’m here confronted with my worst fears, it’s nothing like what I thought it would be. I feel at peace, and happy, and self-assured — MUCH more so than I have ever felt in the past 5 years working in corporate law. I feel like myself again; daily, I regain parts of me that I worried might have been lost forever. And I realize I shouldn’t have worried so much. Starting over will always be tough, but far worse is continuing to live a life you hate. And the self is resilient, if you just give it the chance to try and rise again.

Funnily enough, here in the jungle, one thing I never anticipated has happened: everyone thinks of me and Vinh as the “super wise” old people. I keep insisting we’re just old and have made enough mistakes to know some things. But still, I see differences. We take less shit, give very few fucks, do what we want, and speak our minds. And as I watch my colleagues, all in various different stages of their 20s, I realize that for the first time in my life, I am thankful to be in my 30s. It’s sure as heck fun being in your 20s, but it’s also tiring, confusing, scary, and uncertain — all of the time. Sometime after my 30th birthday, I became too tired to care as much about most of the stuff that bothered 20s me. It’s a natural progression: instead of worrying about what others think, or being good enough, or what you’re always missing out on, mortgages, marriages, babies and other “adult” issues take over. And in the process of getting older, I forgot a little about how difficult a time my 20s actually was.

Here in the jungle, I’ve had a rare opportunity to be surrounded by so many similar, self-selecting individuals at various ages; it’s been like meeting younger versions of myself. Most importantly, interacting with and advising all these old versions of myself helps me appreciate how much I have indeed learned. I can recognize past mistakes I’ve made and can leverage that knowledge to advise my friends. I can tell them that I do know how some things will most likely turn out, because I’ve seen them and lived them already. It’s weird having so many more life experiences than my peers, but it’s also surprisingly reassuring. Much less phases me. I know myself, my limits, and my goals, and can align all three to push myself further. So, while it is hard being the old dog amongst new puppies, it sure is nice having a few tried-and-true tricks up my sleeve. The future is looking a lot less scary knowing that I can fully trust in myself. And for that, I am thankful. 

*Written at Las Piedras Amazon Center (LPAC) in the Madre de Dios Region of the Peruvian Amazon, in June 2016

What Kind of Life Do You Want?

Life

“If you are not willing to risk the usual, you will have to settle for the ordinary” – Jim Rohn

I’m sitting here in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon with birds calling and insects chirping, thinking about what kind of life I want and what characteristics my perfect job would have; it finally clicks: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself.” This popular idiom has never resonated with me until now.

Before, I walked along a preset path: high school, college, LSATs, law school, corporate big law, and burn out. I allowed myself to be herded by others’ wishes, society’s opinions, and my own fears into a safe, somewhat stable, lucrative career. But I wasn’t happy. I felt trapped, like I had to water-down my personality to try to fit into this corporate mask. I realize now that the choices I made as a young 20-something, to take the LSATs “just in case,” to go to law school “because it’s a useful degree,” and to take the corporate law job “just for a few years” had slowly but surely made me into someone 31-year-old me couldn’t recognize and didn’t like. I had marched along the societal benchmarks as told, without ever considering what opportunity costs I was giving up or if the destination was even appealing to me. I didn’t think there was any other choice. I certainly did not think my life was my own to create and form and choose.

I realize now that such a passive approach towards one’s career and life often has unhappy consequences. It’s the “easy” way out, taking no responsibility for what you become because you’ve chosen the safe route. In truth, as a sheep, I never even thought I could “create”, blank slate, my own life – I thought I had to go to school, do well, take tests, go to the next step. Not once did I ever think of each of those individual choices as “creating a life”; in retrospect, they were the exact societal blueprint for a perfectly safe, corporate, unfulfilled life.

This year off, in Asia, Rio, and now the jungle, has taught me, above all else, that life is more a blank canvas than a series of preset paths. We have so much agency to choose to do extraordinary things and to live extraordinary lives, more than our parents or society could ever tell us about. But it is our responsibility to act, to choose, to discover new things, and to create our lives in a way that makes us happy and fulfilled. I see that now. If we don’t, what we risk is our lives as we would want them. And, as T.S. Elliot tells us, “only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

I think the most important lesson for me from this whole experience of quitting, taking a year off, and restarting is that not every opportunity (and path) presented should necessarily be taken. **Opportunities always look good at the outset. BUT, if they aren’t your right thing, even if well-paying and prestigious, taking these “opportunities” is ultimately taking a step away from your right thing. One of the easiest ways to wake up lost is to become someone you didn’t intend to be. And, that starts with the choices you make.** Whenever we invest time, energy, and money into something, we necessarily opt out of everything else we could have chosen instead. Moreover, we also therefore opt out of how those experiences would have shaped and changed us into different versions of ourselves. Young people today feel so much pressure — to succeed, to excel, to matter — and it’s tempting to subscribe to what others (parents, teachers, peers) tell us to do “in order to be happy/successful”. And when we don’t listen to our inner voice, the experiences that would genuinely make each of us individually happy cannot guide our decisions. Instead, if we follow the wrong opportunities, they lead us to places we never intended to go, and we become versions of ourselves we never chose to become. We end up killing ourselves to climb up someone else’s ladder of success, wondering when we even decided to start climbing in the first place.

I realize now that it’s much better to say “no” to these wrong choices parading as opportunities, and to instead mindfully choose what we want to do with our time and our lives. The opportunity cost of not following your own voice is not just your time and energy, but also a different (and more authentic) version of “you”. We risk who we are supposed to become by not listening to our own voices over those of society. We shouldn’t follow anyone else unless we’re ok becoming them. I eventually quit law cuz I never intended to partner. I hated the lifestyle, the stress, and the hours. I had never met a partner I would have wanted to become or marry. So really, I had no business being in corporate law. There was no life there for me that I would like. So then why did I climb that ladder for 5 years — 8, counting law school? When did I even start climbing? I have no idea still, but I am glad that I am finally off that one-way train to someone I didn’t want to become.

Taking a year off was my way of hitting “Restart.” I had to take a step back — from everything I knew — to buy myself more time, space, and perspective to think about what I want and don’t want in my future. It’s the first time I’ve actually thought about it in depth. Now, with each choice I make here, I am actively creating a new “me”. I often think out loud: “when I work and make money, I want to [X].” I want to maintain a daily yoga practice and to keep scuba diving. I want to walk along the beach each night with people I love to unwind. I want to have time to work out daily and eat healthy. I want to never stop adventuring to new places and to keep challenging myself. I want to present my best self to people I meet and friends in my life, not giving them a worn-out, after-work husk of myself. I want to live for each day, not each 7pm when work ends. I feel good about these new non-negotiable I am creating for myself, things I will keep in my life no matter how crazy things get once I re-enter the “real” world.

Here, in the middle of the jungle, I am making a vow to myself to not ever start climbing mindlessly again. I make that vow now with each mindful choice I make – to climb mountains, volunteer in the rainforest, to live a life of adventure. I am and will continue to choose my life, and therefore, who I become. If I don’t, I now know someone else will choose for me, and I cannot risk that for myself ever again.

**Quitter, by Jon Acuff

Products of a year off

Free

Moving to Brazil, and doing it with Vinh, has been one of the best decisions I have made for myself in years. Life moves slower, is sunnier, and fuller (even though we do much less). It’s tempting to think we have to “produce” something, to justify our time and efforts. I was taking a year off and still I felt the pressure (much of it internal, societal, cultural) to have “something” to show for it. “I’ll write a book about bucket list adventures!”; “I am going to do yoga everyday!”; “I will find my life passion while traveling and unwinding.” .. the list goes on. I really made myself believe each platitude too, as if by producing that item for whoever to see would justify why I had to take a break.

Somewhere in the middle, I realized that I had intense writer’s block. I could not get myself to write, because I had attached too much meaning to what the writing was for. Before, it was just for me. I am a talkative person, and I love to emote. I love to write and share my feelings and thoughts. It’s how I interface with the world. FB and IG are very natural media for me, since I get to share and reach more people with my thoughts and opinions. And yet, I was paralyzed. I didn’t write for the first 3 months of my year off. Then my second post came 2 months after that. And then nothing until month 9 of my year off. I couldn’t figure it out until I realized that I was pressuring the writing to become some amazing best-selling travel book overnight. Just not realistic. I convinced myself so many eyes would be on it that I couldn’t start the first sentence. So instead I just lived my daily life. I explored, went to the gym, sunned at the beach. I jumped in waterfalls and took road trips. And slowly, I let go of the pressure of producing something, as I became more convinced and ok with the idea that no one was watching. Everyone has their own lives to live – people are curious and people care. Beyond that, I always was, but now finally felt free to, do whatever I wanted to do with my time off.

And letting go of that need to produce something “of merit,” whatever that means, and allowing myself to just live, has been the best gift of all. I’ve recovered bits of myself that I wasn’t sure were still there — it’s amazing how resilient the soul is. I’ve felt a peace within myself that I hadn’t felt in years, maybe a decade. And I’ve felt genuinely happy.

Why I Bucket List

A bucket list is usually reserved for the dying. A list of things you need to do before you kick your proverbial bucket and run out of time. But why? Why do we wait till we’re dying to feel alive? Why not start living now, instead, while we can still do something about it? I “bucket list”, as a verb: it’s not just a dusty group of experiences I keep in mind for whenever my time might be coming near; no, I BUCKET LIST, ACTIVELY. Meaning that I actively choose to live my life on purpose and with intention.

I am a self-proclaimed and admitted yolo-er, carpe diem subscriber, fomo-enthusiast, and bucket list engineer. My life mottos are “to enjoy life” (from my grandpa, the sensei in doing what makes you happy  in life and in helping others find their own enjoyment) and “live bolder” (meaning, wherever you are in life, hunker down and do a little more, feel a little more alive, sink your teeth into your reality and savor the nectar of it). Many of my friends and family don’t really know me any other way, but I assure you that my disposition has been a conscious, intentional creation requiring years of practice and self-reflection to build and maintain.

My first 17 years of life, I was happily sheltered. My only concerns were studying, volleyball double days, SATs, and getting into a good college. I was the prototype model minority Asian 1st generation kid in the South Bay, going to prep school, playing piano, crying about how A-‘s would ruin my life, and studying into the wee hours of the night. Yes, I was that annoying kid. And then my dad died suddenly, and I realized sh*t, life is short. My dad died exactly a week after his 48th birthday. Being 31 myself now, I realize more and more the gravity of how young 48 is — how many of his dreams, hopes, and plans (and those of my mom, with him) turned to dust that week.

From that quantum moment in my life, I began to see things differently. There are no guarantees in life. Sure, life’s an opportunity to do anything we want; but our time (and energy) is limited. There’s a great Jack Kornfield saying often attributed to Buddha: “The problem is, you think you have time….” We go through life thinking we follow a set trajectory — go to school, be good, get married, buy a house, have kids. We almost autopilot through, and are encouraged to by society and family wanting us to live stable, safe, happy lives. This approach often works out. But, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, it leaves you overnight a single mom trying to raise two kids, or with a stage 3 cancerous growth to explain the pain you’ve felt for a few months, or with any other curve ball this crazy life might throw at you. Nothing is a sure bet, unfortunately. My takeaway from losing my dad so young was that nothing is a given, and that I had to make the most of my minutes on this earth, because you never know.

And that was the birth of my yolo (“You only live once”) attitude and approach towards life. This didn’t mature into full-blown fomo (“Fear of missing out”) until later in college at UCLA. I was on a plane ride back from China, talking to the random seat mate to my left. She said something to me that has changed the trajectory of my life ever since: “You’re at a cross-roads. You’ve got to decide if you want your life to be achievement-oriented or experience-oriented. Whatever you choose, choose it with all your heart, and go for it.” And my little 19-year-old heart quietly affirmed to this stranger “Experience. I want experiences that take my breath away.” And that was that. From then on, I stopped trying to gain accolades and started focusing more on what activities, trips, hobbies, and people would enrich my own experience. I shifted my focus from trying to be the best (a naturally competitive view, always looking to others for validation of your own status) to being my happiest (an introspective approach, focusing on my needs, wants, hopes and dreams, and how to bring them into my reality). The result was my bucket listing.

Again, many people think of a bucket list as something you make when you’re faced head on with death, but, why wait? Why do we need to stay on autopilot until that last moment? Why not engage with yourself and make that list now, while you’re young, and have the time, money, energy, or freedom to do any of those things? Why wait till a terminal illness scare, or some other catastrophe reminds you of your own mortality? And so, I keep a very active, ever-evolving bucket list. I check off at least 3 things a year, and my list changes as I do.

Bucket lists definitely are not all epic, once-in-a-lifetime kind of experiences. They can be simple or closer to home, like marrying your high school sweetheart (which was the one item on a good friend’s bucket list, which he’s happily accomplished 🙂 ), making pasta from scratch, singing karaoke in public, kissing in the rain, getting a tattoo, etc. Bucket list experiences make you feel more alive, and remind you that you are indeed living your life, and it’s not just passing you by. I believe in the power of having a bucket list, because it helps each of us articulate and achieve what matters to us. For me, I want to live a life of adventure, and setting discrete goals as bucket list items allows me to hone in and build this crazy, daring life of my dreams. I’ve run with the bulls, learned to scuba dive and dove with sharks, climbed half dome in Yosemite, and learned Italian and moved to Italy. And I don’t know if I would have made the space to do many of these things if I hadn’t made them bucket list items that I wanted to check off. Life gets busy, and without that list to remind me of what I wanted out of my life, I could easily see how another list could have taken over: grades, job, money, mortgage, car insurance. The list of life must-dos is always there; for me, my bucket list remidns me that my “to do’s” checklist is not the only list that matters. Those obligations, while necessary for life maintenance, do not and should not make up my life. So, I save the money and make the time to tackle and check off my much more fun and rewarding bucket list.

We each are living our own lives, and so, what we want to do with them will naturally differ. That’s the great thing about bucket lists — they’re totally unique, just like us. I will be posting my “how to bucketlist” guide as I adventure through this year on this blog, in case anyone finds it useful. A life coach of mine once asked what my message is, what I want to accomplish. My gut answer was that I want people to live bolder — to get more out of their lives, whatever that might mean to them. There’s no time like now, and you’re never going to have this moment in your life again. Get out there and live your life, on purpose.

Do you have a bucket list? If so, what’s on it? If not, let’s make you one. It’s your life, what do you want to do?

Thought up: in Montclair, CA talking with my good friend while moving his gym equipment into his new home

Written up: from my mom’s couch in Singapore, right before we headed out to Bugis St. market 

 

 

INTO THE BLUE, WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS…

In scuba diving, there exists the concept of going “into the blue” – away from shore and into wide-open ocean. This kind of dive requires you to let go of the anchors and rocks in your life that keep you grounded and stuck where you are. You float up in the water, and the current takes you where it will. The first time I tried to calibrate my eyes into the vast blueness of the open water before me, panic set in. Everything looked the same; I saw nothing … but blue. No rocks, no shore, no benchmarks or safety nets. This was the Galapagos, who the heck knows what might be swimming around in those waters! As the group swam away from shore, I remained death-gripped to the rocks below me. My breath quickened, as I attempted to psych myself up. Tiff, let go now. Everyone is leaving. You’ll die alone here. LET GO! My fears locked me in place, and I watched everyone else swim away. Now or never, Tiff. We’re looking for Whale Sharks, not staying stuck to the rocks. As the group got further into the blue, I tentatively opened my fingers and felt a rush as the water took me. No turning back now. 

As we got further and further from shore, I lost sight of my little rock perch. I stopped looking back, actually. There’s little point trying to hold onto something you’ve left long ago; it just keeps you from seeing what’s in front of you. And for me right then, we were out looking for something magic. The excitement of the hunt (not for reals, we don’t support that) and of being so small in such a vast setting felt FREE. This wasn’t scary, it was exhilarating! And even though we didn’t find the Whale Sharks we set out for, the promise of something special being held in that vast nothingness captivated me. This crazy, confusing blue, where the magic can happen at any time.

In August, I quit my high-paying, prestigious law firm job. I didn’t (and still don’t) have another job lined up or any notion of what I might want to do instead. I just knew it wasn’t that. I was stuck, hanging onto my legal career with that same foolish death-grip. Law was the devil I knew, and staying was less scary than the vast unknown blue. I justified every year I stayed miserable and numbed myself in order to remain in place. The price of that “safety” keeping me miserably low, away from my full potential. I was no longer happy. I hadn’t been for years, but it took me 8 years of misery to finally just let go.

And, the currents of life gently pushed me away from the rocks, into the unknown. I’m still swimming out there now, in the swirling blue waters that are my day to day life now. Between yoga poses, scuba dive trips, visiting friends and family that I haven’t had a chance to spend quality time with in years, and even just sitting down to read a book, I’m living and loving the life of uncertainty, searching for little doses of magic each and every day. I’m drifting further and further from the life I knew and trusting myself to keep swimming out where I have no reference. I open myself up to new experiences everyday, and while some stick and others fade, the important thing is that I’m no longer afraid to try. I’ve traded in my stagnation-cubicle life for the promise of the vague something magic out there. And I am learning to trust that what waits out there is better than anything I can hold onto near to shore. 

So, while it’s scary to let go of what you know, the scene you’re sick of, and try something new, that’s also the only way that we can start to reach magic. As they say, a ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. This is my year to sail out into the sunset, take infinite leaps of faith, and find my true self somewhere in the blue.

Thought up: scuba diving in the Galapagos

Written up: from my kitchen table in DTLA, right before leaving for 2 months in Asia.