Year in Review: Books that changed my life this year

2018 was a year of great discovery and personal development. Or at least, it was the year that I actually put things into action rather than just thinking about it. Like many people, I have this issue with “time.” Not enough of them, that is. I probably make myself sound like the busiest businesswoman in the world, but in reality that is not what I am. I’m a mom of two small children, with a full time job that has very consistent hours. Besides spending time with my family (which is basically just my kids and husband), I don’t doodle too much into other things besides writing and photography.

And yet…I still feel like I didn’t have enough time to do all the things that I wanted to do. This, more or less, spilled into the idea that in America, being “busy” is considered a good thing, and to feel busy is better than not feeling busy. That’s what I thought at the beginning of the year anyway.

Now that the year is about over, and I’ve had time to reflect, I realize how wrong that type of thinking is.

This year, I made time to do some reading. Every morning from January 1st to today (December 31st), I woke up early, usually around 5:30 a.m. and read until 6:30 a.m., then head to work. As a result, I completed–as in actually finished–50 books. FIFTY!

It’s astonishing to me just how crazy that sounds…and how much I’ve learned through the process of reclaiming my time, and reframing my way of thinking. Doing something you enjoy is such a privilege nowadays, especially when you have little kids and believe me, they take up a lot of your time. Then, if you have a partner/spouse, you need time with them as well.

Speaking of spouses, that was how my husband and I ended up with more time together–in the morning, before reading, sometimes we’d talk about all sorts of different things, things that we typically don’t talk about late in the evening when we’re being interrupted by our kids or too tired to talk. Getting up early in the morning and having a cup of coffee together proved to be the wonderful, valuable time that we needed. It was great that he was also reading along with me. I think the mutual activity was inspiration for us to keep going.

From memoirs to personal finance to parenting books, I read it all…50 of them, anyway. That said, here are the books that made the biggest impact this year for me.

The Harry Potter Series (book 1-6 completed)

I had to see for myself why Harry Potter is so popular, and finally after finishing six out of the seven books in the series, I finally understood. If you don’t, you should read it. Enough said.

These are great debut novels. It garnered great reviews, and definitely lived up to its name. Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage opened the intersection between love and justice, whereas Cait Flanders’ book shed light into the world of consumerism and personal finance. Finally, Cary & Kyle’s New Minimalism is a short and beautiful book about decluttering and organizing filled with anecdotes and a discussion of mindsets, which was very helpful for me.

These ones were surprisingly good, not that I expected it to be. Gail Honeyman’s story about a young, sad, boring millennial with no friends proved to be anything but. Twists and turns later, you’ll find out the real truth about Eleanor. Laura Vanderkam’s book might’ve had some things I wasn’t keen on, but in general, she made some really good points about how we can all make the best of the time that we have by simply reframing our way of thinking and prioritizing. Finally, as far as memoirs go, The Glass Castle is truly astounding. Jeanne Walls’ story is an amazing story about survival, hope, and family.

These ones are true, deep and personal. It definitely opened my eyes in certain areas. Sherman Alexie’s is a mixture of poetry and prose, but it was still very good. Susan Cain’s Quiet shed light into the power of introverts and helped me see that being an introvert isn’t such a bad thing. Finally, Daniel Pink’s Drive talks about motivation in such a phenomenal way that I haven’t read about anywhere else.

And finally, my top two favorites of the year….Tara Westover’s childhood is the kind of crazy childhood that I can never fathom and to go into her world was beyond amazing. And Daniel’s book made me think much deeper about the concept of time, and as a result, I learned things that I never knew or thought about.

Year in review: On learning to let things go

This is a first in a series of anecdotes I’m going to write about the year that was 2018.

If you know me well, you’ll know that I am a photography enthusiast. I’ve always steered towards the creative side, always have a desire to create something, but my enthusiasm, shall we say, for taking photos didn’t really take off until I was pregnant with my first child and got my first iPhone.

Fast forward several years later, I have another kid…and mountains of photos under my belt. I never deleted them. Instead, I accumulated photos the same way that a hoarder accumulates things–pile them on top of each other, until the space became unrecognizable.

My “space” in this case, was my iPhone storage, and cloud storage, and hard drive, and external hard drive. I uploaded my photos into the cloud, and hardly looked at them again. On my phone, I’d regularly look at my photos, but again…I felt a sense of nostalgia towards it, so I couldn’t bear to delete it. Besides, I am also an indecisive person by nature; thus, I couldn’t decide which ones were appropriate to delete.

You can see where this is going.

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I realized it eventually–that I needed to figure out how to let it all go. Not just my photos, but my things in general. My clothing and accessories are minimal in comparison to others, but at the same time, I have a very small space to store my things, so I couldn’t let it accumulate. And yet at one point or another during the year, I felt stifled by all the things I had, clothing mainly.

It’s like a mental game I’ve been playing with myself. I don’t have a lot of money, so I buy used things or things on sale. I grew up with little. These things have memories. Those still fits, etc. The battle continues…every excuse I can think of to not let go.

Sometime at the end of the summer, I finally realized this, and embarked on a journey to finally get rid of all those photos. Sure, I’ve taken a few fantastic ones, but a lot of bad ones too. The first task was to tackle my iPhone albums.

Because I had let it accumulate to over 2000 photos, it became the most exhausting and daunting task–more than I could’ve imagined. I realized I could not complete it in one sitting, so I took breaks and completely removed about 2000 photos on my cell phone in the course of several weeks. Mainly, I backed it up in my Google Photos drive…so many of the bad ones are still there, but out of my phone at least.

Next, I tackled my hard drive and external hard drive. This, admittedly, is still a work in progress as of today, but I feel like I am making progress at least.

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An ode to pictures

I also went through my kids toys, clothing, accessories as well as my own. What resulted, after several weekend afternoons, were several HUGE bags of donation to Goodwill. Again, it was quite exhausting, and I felt a bit ashamed, because it was so much stuff.

What I didn’t expect, however, was the fact that I felt much, much lighter… both physically and mentally, after achieving those two tasks. I was finally letting my nostalgia go, and I realize I can still keep memories in my mind, perhaps write it down somewhere if I want proof later on, but not have it cluttered around my home or electronic devices. I realized that I can actually live with just ten sweaters, five pairs of jeans, seven pairs of socks and ten or less undergarments instead of twenty sweaters, ten pairs of jeans, and mountains of undergarments.

This is what I learned–that I can actually live with less, that I should let go of really old things (just replaced our seven year rug) and introduce new ones if I want to, and I’ll be okay.

The recession is over: it’s time to move on

This September marked the 10-year anniversary of the collapse of the Lehman Brothers, otherwise known as “the financial crisis of 2008” or “recession,” for short. Like many recent college graduates at the time, I was hopeful and excited at the prospect of having a career. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that with a business degree, I had plenty of choices.

Little did I know how wrong I was.

Ten years later, last week, I received an influx of articles in my inbox reminiscing about this recession. In a NYT opinion piece, an editor who, like me, came of age during the recession, expressed bitterness for the “big guys” who crushed her parents’ hope of achieving the comfortable middle-class life and her ambition towards a financially stable future.

Another piece, also by the New York Times, poses a slightly more optimistic view, chronicled several selected individuals who were interviewed in 2008 about their lives in relation to the crisis and their lives now, ten years later. Some of them got back up after being knocked down and prospered, while others continued to struggle, never finding the same level of work that they were accustomed to before the crash. Finally, the New Yorker said that evidence shows middle class incomes have not rebounded back to same level as it were prior to the recession.

Coincidentally, just last week I listened to a Hidden Brain podcast called “Looking Back” in which they talked about regret in conjunction with nostalgia.

The episode (which can be heard here) dove into the idea that is so fundamentally obvious and yet we tend to forget about sometimes—that we regret what we didn’t do versus what we did do. Much can be said about the mistakes that we make as humans when we choose to do certain things, and yet more can be said about what we choose NOT to do.

It’s not so much that I want to talk about a terrible period in my life, but rather, disclose it in a way that tells you that I’ve learned a thing or two.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

From 2008 to 2010, I didn’t think anything was different or challenging from my post-college life (except for the fact that my husband and I owed the IRS more taxes than we had in the bank and therefore, we had to survive on a $30 per week grocery budget while we drove our used 8-year-old car as little as possible so that we can pay the bills AND the IRS back). I thought that was just the life that we were given, thus nothing out was of the ordinary. I didn’t pay attention to the news; thus, I didn’t realize the crash had such a fundamental effect on so many people.

Upon reflection, I realize that it was quite extraordinary that my husband and I managed it all. It’s extraordinary how we didn’t move back in with our parents, how we didn’t rely on charity (even though we could have), how we didn’t default on our loans, how we managed to come out of it alive and kicking.

After listening to the Hidden Brain episode, it brought me back to the early days of the crash and several years after that. After being laid off from a really nice job at a good company, I fell into a sinkhole of uncertainty and low self-esteem. I was more confused than ever, so I obtained jobs without much thought to the pay or the culture (because, let’s face it—back then there weren’t that many jobs to be had, so you couldn’t be picky even if you wanted).

I landed in a position that was so low paying with such a toxic culture that I came home crying every day. The job only lasted a year. Then, for the next four years, I worked in the financial services industry—first at a bank, then at a credit union. By 2012, things were starting to rebound a bit, and yet, I didn’t feel that I was making any progress.

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Photo by Chris Li on Unsplash

I had been there for a year and a half when a great position opened up in their accounting department (this mind you, was a small credit union with roughly 115 employees, and therefore, opportunities like that didn’t open up very often). By then, I was pregnant with my first child, and had already been rejected for another position prior in their call center. Because I didn’t want to face another rejection, I decided not to apply for the position.

The person who got the job was a fellow teller named Bri. Much to her surprise and mine, she got the position with no prior experience. In fact, she graduated with a degree in communications. But after knowing her for several years by that point, I knew how organized and consistent she was — two traits that would make a good accountant.

I remember talking to her after she got the news. I told her how happy I was that she got the job, and that the main reason why I didn’t apply was because I was five months pregnant, and that I would only be trained for a few months before going on maternity leave. She knew that I was taking some accounting courses and was looking for a new avenue to pursue. Bri told me that I should’ve applied, and I said I didn’t feel right competing with her. Now looking back on it, I knew how foolish that was. Pregnancy, after all, is a protected class, and they couldn’t discriminate based on that fact alone.

This is just an example of the many opportunities passed over the years, simply because I didn’t want to experience failure. Little did I know that failure only serves to bring people back up again. I truly felt like my twenties was spent fluttering my hand in the wind, with no sense of direction whatsoever, and no way of figuring it out, all because I graduated during the recession, got laid off, and didn’t get any (financial) help from anybody. I felt myself partly to blame because I wasn’t prepared enough for the recession. Now that I think about it, I think, “How can you possibly prepare for a major financial meltdown?” There is no business school or college course that talks about these kinds of things and how to prepare for them.

Now, looking back ten years ago, I feel exactly what the Hidden Brain podcast said–a sense of nostalgia marked by sadness but also with a certain level of triumph. I feel that many of us, regardless of what generation we were born into, will enter our thirties with more wisdom than we had in our twenties. Our experiences are influenced by the economic changes of our generation, and I feel that because I was amongst many of those who came of age during the recession that it only made me more resilient and aware of life’s volatility. I realized that I needed to move on—that blame and bitterness about the situation wasn’t going to change it. The fact of the matter is—I survived it, and thus it will go into my memory  as a story I can tell to my children.

 

What I’ve learned from the past seven months about myself

This year in February, I turned 33. Eek. I cringe just typing that number. It didn’t feel like I was born that long ago. For my birthday this year, I didn’t have any expectations or know exactly how I wanted my thirty third year to turn out. What I didn’t want was to get on the scale and learned that I was 131 lbs, and I’m not even pregnant. For someone to be that weight, and only 5 feet tall and Asian American, it is definitely a concerning number. I was tipping the scale into overweight territory, and for the first time in my life, I felt great doom about my health.

One part of me could’ve avoided it altogether. She could’ve compared herself to other overweight people of her generation and say, “Well, it’s not so bad. I mean, look at everyone else!” But the other part of me was tired of comparing myself to others and didn’t want to base my level of what’s normal in terms of health against what I currently see. I realize that too often we do that–compare ourselves to what’s current as a way to rationalize our own behavior and lack of self control and to desensitize ourselves from what we don’t want our future selves to be.

I decided I had to face my problem head on. So I began with resisting sweet treats at the end of February, right after my birthday. I was inundated with baked goods for several months, and I heartily accepted…which was probably what added the pounds on my body. When I realized that baked goods are the devil until I can lose 10 lbs, I had to say no.

Then, in March, I began an exercise routine. Mind you, I’ve never really been an exercise fiend at all. I barely survived PE in high school. I do enjoy a game of kickball or badminton now and then, but as far as exercise for health is concerned, I’ve always been blessed with a metabolism that allowed me to pretty much eat anything I wanted without gaining weight. That metabolism got fed up with me and said goodbye last winter, and I was left to deal with the error of my own ways.

I begrudgingly said to my husband, “I want to start exercising.” (grumpy face). Even though he wasn’t technically overweight, he was feeling the seasonal depression too, and thought that exercising might help, so he agreed to be my running partner. From March until June, we ran every other night after the kids went to bed, because that was the only time we had to ourselves.

I’m not going to lie–the first few weeks were incredibly difficult. So difficult that I wanted to quit. But whenever the thought of quitting entered my mind, I also rebutted with the thought of not wanting to be overweight at all whatsoever. I wanted to be in the normal range again. I knew that the only way to lower that weight was to exercise.

End of story, right? Not so much.

After a month or so of running, and realizing that it’s not so bad after all, I ran my first 5K–an amazing feat, one that I will call a personal achievement, because never in my life did I ever think that I could complete a 5K. EVER. With all this excitement about completing a 5K, I thought I could just continue what I was doing–running for 30-45 minutes four times a week. But the weight didn’t come off…at least not as fast as I’d hoped. After several more weeks of running, I realized that I barely lost 2 lbs. I felt very discouraged.

So I started reevaluating myself. Is it what I’m eating? I wondered. I discussed this with my husband, and after doing some research, came to the conclusion that in order to lose weight quicker, I’d have to amp up the protein, fruits & vegetables, and crank down the carbs and the starch. Rice was my biggest vice. I love, love, love rice. I grew up with it, and can never part with it. That’s why I eat it almost every day for dinner. Heaping big scoops of rice, possibly two cups of that beautiful starch regularly entered my stomach.

I learned that the amount of rice I was eating was adding on hundreds more calories than I needed and that in order to lose the weight, I’d have to burn more calories than I took in. Thus began another journey of resisting rice. Two cups became one quarter of a cup–a dramatic difference on a plate. Again, it was excruciating, like waiting for the results of a genetic test to find out whether you have the chromosomal abnormality for cystic fibrosis.

As painful as it was to give up that much rice, I started to see results right away. Combine that with the exercising, I was able to lose the weight in just three months. These days, the pants and shorts I wear are so incredibly loose that I can put two hands into it and still see plenty of space around my waist. My husband can also do the same.

These days we don’t exercise nearly as much anymore. We decided to take a little break for now. I am currently in a state where I’m happy with my weight. Temptation rises all the time, especially nowadays at my new job where there are treats all around all the time. Sometimes I can resist the doughnut. This morning I didn’t though.

But what I’ve taken away from the past seven months is this: it’s unrealistic to compare yourself to others, given that the standards in which others live their lives are not the same as yours. If I had ignored my angel side telling me that it’s a good idea to exercise, I would’ve joined the millions of people in America who are overweight and can’t find the inner strength to exercise or eat healthy.

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Look, I’m not trying to generalize or put people on a certain pedestal, but I am saying that once you let go of what others around you are doing and saying and thinking and start listening to yourself and your own values, you will realize what’s important to you. As philosophical as that sounds, I think that rule can be applied to just about anything, not just health. Letting go of preconceived notions and self-doubt was purely life-changing for me. Once I started thinking of myself as an able-bodied person who can do things and should probably do things, then things started happening beyond what I expected.

 

 

Breaking up with bad habits is hard to do

2018 First quarter recap

Every morning for the past three months, my alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. About five minutes later, I’d trudge out of bed, slowly at first, then stumble into the kitchen, turn on the coffeemaker, and then make my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth and go to the bathroom. Once I’m done, I head back to the kitchen, where the coffee is almost ready, then I’d go over to my husband, still sleeping on the couch (we sleep on a fold-out sofa bed) and nudge him out of bed. After a few minutes, he begrudgingly does the same.

After he’s done in the bathroom, we’d go into the kitchen, where we’d drink a cup of hot, steaming coffee, sigh with satisfaction, exchange a few words here and there, then sit down on a small kiddie chair (him) and a step stool (me) and we’d start reading. This would go on until I have to go to work or one of our kids wake up.

We’d go on about our days as normal, him taking care of our kids mostly, and me at work. After the kids go to bed, we’d step outside and do our workout every other evening. On the evenings that we don’t exercise, we either work on a jigsaw puzzle or watch a movie or use it to take care of personal business.

This chain of events would never happen if we weren’t parents. It certainly would not have happened while we were poor college students. Back then, if I woke up before 8:00 a.m. I’d give myself a high five. Waking up early to read and exercising consistently 4-5 times a week is utterly incomprehensible to me up until a month ago. You might think that we’re crazy–you may ask, “Aren’t you tired after a long day with the kids or a long day at work?”

“Hell yes, we’re tired as ever, but we have goals to reach,” is what I’d say. When you want something to happen bad enough, you do whatever it takes to make it happen.

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Photo by John Baker on Unsplash

Earlier this year, I had several realizations about myself. The first one is that I am not great at finishing things, mainly books. In a typical year, I’d start about 30 books but rarely ever finish them. Second, like many people, I went to coffee shops a lot! Of course, my justification was that if I only went twice a week, then it’s okay. Umm, not a good justification, because I don’t make the kind of money that allows me this particular luxury. Lastly, I hardly ever exercise. All my life, I’ve been skinny. I weighed barely 100 lbs in high school, and continued to be small throughout college and in my twenties. I never once thought that my weight would catch up with me. I thought my metabolism was invincible.

Boy, was I wrong. Earlier this year, I started to notice that my weight had climbed up a little bit. By BMI standards, I was close to being considered “overweight.” This translates into being 131 lbs. Ouch. For an American white female, this is normal, but for a short Asian female, it is not.

I wondered to myself if whether those pounds added up gradually because I had two kids or because I’ve had a sedentary job for the past year and a half and I’ve been going to Starbucks a lot to compensate for the long days.

I realize now that it is most likely the latter. The holiday season certainly didn’t help with my seasonal depression. I was feeling down because I didn’t have any money and we were living off credit cards, and I felt pressured to be jolly. Then February came, and I was greeted with a heaping portion of baked goods, to which I accepted. It wasn’t until the end of February when I went to the doctor for an annual check up and my doctor mentioned the phrase, “holiday pounds” that it clicked in my head. Yep–office job, the holidays and its sweets, then more sweets in February (Valentines Day and my birthday is only a week apart) is what got me to where I am today–being almost overweight for my age group and ethnicity. I cringed when I saw the number on the doctor’s office scale. Not watching what I eat and not exercising has been detrimental to my body. The scale doesn’t lie. This is the heaviest I’ve ever been without being pregnant.

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Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

I remember a customer that I used to help when I worked at a local credit union. His name was Paul, and when I first met him, I decided that he couldn’t possibly be older than 50. Then I looked at his profile and saw that he was in his mid-seventies! He looked incredibly healthy and fit. Not surprisingly, he worked out everyday and taught fitness classes for bus drivers. I was in awe, and admired him for his strength.

Then I examined those around me currently–at work, at home, in public places. And I was blown away by the evidence of unhealthy lifestyles all around me. At work, for example, I see at least three individuals who are extremely overweight and have trouble walking even three blocks. Plus, they looked so incredibly old for their age. The evidence was clear in their physical appearance–they did not eat healthy foods or exercised, two components necessary for maintaining a healthy weight.

I’m more inspired from seeing what I don’t want to be versus what I would like to be.

I thought about my bad habits and how they do not align with my values. It became obvious that changes need to be implemented right away.

So at the beginning of March, I stopped going to Starbucks. If I can manage to do this for an entire year, I’ll save at least $400, or $35/mo. I started my reading routine and invited my husband to do the same. My husband has never been the type of person who’d wake up early to read either. For him, it’s a real game changer. I also created a workout schedule, and even signed up for a 5K, something I never imagined I would do.

As March continued on, I started feeling better. My insomnia was almost nonexistent. Surprisingly, I looked forward to working out, because it meant quality time with my husband. And because of the consistent reading, I’ve finished three books in January, three books in February, and five books in March. My husband has also finished his own share of books. We’ve completed two jigsaw puzzles together. I went to Starbucks zero times (okay, I cheated– once to a Dutch Bros. thrive-thru, and once to a convenience store, which comes to a whopping $5 total). I spent roughly $16 on coffee for home brewing, and still have coffee for next month. I bought lunch exactly once. It was the best $5 I’ve spent in a long time. I exercised for fifteen days. During the month of March, I ran approximately 26 miles and averaged 9709 steps, roughly 3000 more steps than I’ve had in the past six months. Simply put, I’ve doubled what I’ve done in terms of exercise. I’ve saved a lot of money by not going to coffee shops as often. And I’ve nurtured my brain with jigsaw puzzles and reading every day.

I realized that if I’m going to allow my kids to eat only Cheerios and no other sugary cereals, then I must treat myself the same way–with restraint. I must practice eating healthy and resisting the urges that ignite in my brain whenever I’m bored/anxious/sad/angry/whatever. I have to learn to distinguish between a true need and a simple desire.

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Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

I ran into Paul several months ago on the train platform by my house. We exchanged a few brief words. He still looks the same as he always does–fit and happy. And it made me think–if I want to be as healthy as him in retirement age, then I need to start early. I need to start now.

The first few days were incredibly difficult. Like stepping on hot coals for the first time, you feel a sense of shock as the pain registers in your body—as mine did in the first few runs. The “fight or flight” response is in full swing at this point. Instead of choosing to quit, I chose to fight. My determination overrode my fear of becoming a depressed, unhealthy individual.

I’m not going to lie–it’s been hard. But if there’s one thing that I learned from the past month it’s this–determination is the driving force to success. It starts in the mind. To me, there are three elements to achieving a goal. The first is deciding on which goal to tackle. The second is putting it into action. Lastly, continuing that action until you see active results. This is the part where a lot of us get hung up on–patience. Success doesn’t happen overnight, and for many of us, myself included, impatience gets in the way. Bad habits manifests itself in your thoughts, like the devil whispering on one side of your ear telling you that you are not capable. Being able to shut out the intrusive thoughts is difficult, but this month and beyond, I plan on continuing my path towards developing better habits.