Essay 2: One Thing I Wish I was Smart Enough to Understand

No one understands everything, but everyone wants to understand something. Spend a little time discussing one of those fascinating subjects which you just don’t get. Why does it interest you? What don’t you understand?

Picking the topic of this essay was a little challenging – the subject had to be one I did not understand, but yet also personally fascinating. Therein lay a great problem. Humans tend to shun and shy away from the unknown, things we are not good at, things we do not understand. Thus there are many things which I do not understand, and many of them are objectively fascinating topics, but to admit to them as personally fascinating makes a noticeable dent in one’s ego. The things one does not understand can be dismissed as uninteresting, and the understanding of objectively interesting topics can always be procrastinated upon. I am wary of advice to overcome oneself and transcend the ego and all the nice fluffy stuff. But talk is cheap – it is easy to preach but hard to practice. Thus the topic that I find fascinating, but for the life of me cannot understand, is motivation and will power.

Psychology provides us with a wormy bag of factors that comprise motivation. More often than not, such an approach takes on a reductionist character, and before long we are reduced to simple animal urges, making humanity seem quite bleak. Everything becomes a singular drive to pass on the genes. Neuroscience and biochemistry gives us another framework in which to understand this. You may have only wanted to sow the wild oats when you made the decision to do that, but it was really the blast of neurotransmitter or hormone that you had from eating that animal energy product at dinner talking. While our body is great at homeostasis, sudden fluctuations in the levels of a certain chemical in one’s body is not unheard of, and this approach again reduces our motivations to a series of chance measurements. Perhaps I do not understand this topic well because I am simplifying the best approaches we have to it. But then, what motivates my reductio ad absurdum of the topic?

I know people who are quite good at identifying the main thrust of the motivation of others. For me, there are always too many factors, connected in too complex a web, and inter-influencing all the other factors. Motivation is certainly not an exact science – there is no set weighting for each criteria in one’s mind. But nor is it a fuzzy social science. One cannot put confidence intervals on it, nor can one enter into a consensus on it like history. Strange as it may be, it seems to be most similar to post-modernism. Because though all evidence and past history would point to one system of motivation, only the self knows what exactly was going through the mind at such a point, and even then not always. This extreme perspectivism can be absolutely paralyzing if one allows it to be. But it is best combated by a certain degree of nonchalance. You fuzzy plan for logical extension of things, but just roll with the punches when details emerge.

Tied closely to the topic of motivation is the topic of will power. Having very little of it myself, I am continuously in awe of those who seem to have an endless supply. One can explain it with that oft-cited study about the children with marshmallows and short- and long- term gratification. But children are naturally overzealous – those with a high degree of self-control must have developed it some time during their schooling. I used to think that one just had to wear a tin foil cap to help focus and bully your mind. But recently I have been challenged in that…no one likes exercising self-control, and those with seemingly vast quantities of it have gotten it by mercilessly subjecting themselves to mind games, and those who refuse to train in such a fashion are…well…weak, and unwilling to admit to one’s laziness, according to my interlocutor. Harsh though it may be (and perhaps personally damning), my gut feeling is that there is a kernel (maybe more) of truth in such blunt words. But then, even if one is bunkered down to improve one’s will power, what is an acceptable rate of improvement? It seems, at times, a Sissyphean struggle.

Perhaps most important of all to both motivation and will power is the big question of “for what?”. It really does not matter how you answer that as long as you do. Entry-level nihilism aside, when trying to improve will power and trying to motivate oneself, be it for something big or something small, I have found it most practical to adopt a World of Warcraft (I have never played) system – small but encouraging (but ultimately worthless) rewards for the first steps, leading in to endless experience grinding and an unholy perseverance and drive near the end.

NB: Step-by-step is what I was proposing, although addiction can certainly motivate you as well.

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Essay 1: Who I am

A credo of sorts. Who are you? What makes you tick? What ticks you off? What do you want out of life? What do you think life wants out of you? Really, this one’s fairly open ended. Do with it what you will.

A liminal character.

After using the word “liminal” for a few months I realized that it was not a word after all. Well, at least that’s what Microsoft Word kept telling me. says that although it is a word, it is rarely used, and defined it as only remotely relating to what I had taken for its meaning. But I trust my gosu Scrabble-playing professor over the Internet. A liminal character, she said in between “uhh”s, was someone who was in between two worlds – Pocahontas (the historical one), in the case of the text we were discussing in class. Is that me then? Just in the liminal zone between East and West?

I suppose we’re all liminal in a sense, perpetually caught in between this and that. That’s natural for us, innit? To demarcate and define a “this” and “that”. Dichotomies make life easier. It simplifies otherwise complex choices to a binary. I suppose one could go all Eastern mysticism on me and say, while brushing back that mangy surfer hair to reveal a California tan, that “dude, everything is one”. I suppose then I could just accuse you of trivializing and distorting my traditions. But what is evolution of culture but distortion of it? And what is tradition but current distortion carried on through the ages? I digress.

Supposedly I had gotten the introspection out of my system in Literature class. But cold, rainy days in an alien city brings out the melancholy surely. If deeply psychological and penned in frank, concise vocabulary, I suppose the reflection of yesteryear take after the Western literary tradition. The Eastern literary tradition, though less secretive after Lu Xun, nonetheless strives to be dense, esoteric, and symbolic. I suppose that this piece has taken on that tone. But allow me a momentary lapse into the Western tradition to explain. One has to read between the lines, and form one’s own opinions based on what’s provided. Texts become less remote once one has learned by rote memory the entire classical canon, perhaps even a commentary or two if truly sagacious. The story goes that one master, seeing another’s calligraphy, can immediately discern personality, moment (or instantaneous velocity if you will) of life, overall mood and health, and worries.

So who am I? A breeze-like joie de vivre, hither and thither, watching much, and speaking little.

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