Sunday, June 30, 2013

Waterfall-ing

This weekend, I climbed a waterfall.  Literally.  Admittedly, I didn't totally know what I was getting into, but I am still giving myself credit for being adventurous and mildly crazy.  I've been making a conscious effort lately to get away from the computer (obviously not now) and commit myself to relaxing, enjoying life, and not worrying about e-mails, students, or anything else work-related.

I've realized in the past few months that when you work primarily from home, this is basically impossible.  Thus, the best way to accomplish this so-called "un-plugging" is to get my ass outside and into an environment where the digital world is wholly inaccessible.  And while I'm at it, I figured why not throw in some potentially life threatening rock climbing to really drive the point home?  Yes, I fully acknowledge this is a sad thing to have to manipulate yourself into relaxing, but so it goes.  And I have to tell you, it works quite well.  There's nothing like plopping yourself in the middle of nature to remember how insignificant most of our troubles are -- in a good way, not in a depressing "nothing matters so what's the point" type of way.

As I was looking for the next way to unplug, I was sifting through Hong Kong's many fun outdoor excursions and I came across this hiking blog which recommended a hike to Wang Chung stream (橫涌石澗).  There were several warning signs that this would be a new flavor of adventure, all of which I failed to notice.  My ability to read quickly sometimes results in a compromise on the comprehension of the details.  For example:

  1. I should have noticed that Waterfalls was a separate category on his blog.  He refers to it as "stream trekking" which is "more challenging than regular hiking".  
  2. I did read the note that said "Do not attempt to climb directly into the larger falls.  People did lose [sic] their lives there."  I thought, 'Um I'm not a fucking idiot... who walks directly into a large waterfall and tries to climb up it.  We'll be fine!'
  3. The directions begin with, "Take the steps down right by the sign that tells you not to enter."  
  4. Next, he says, "You will walk along the stream for a few meters then enter the stream proper."  

Anyway, hindsight is 20/20, but I'm glad I didn't fully process the potential danger of the situation
Green river.
because if I had, I might not have gone and it was pretty damn awesome.  We started out wandering along Bride's Pool Road trying to find previously mentioned "Do Not Enter" sign.  Should have been another warning sign that there were actually quite a few of them, and we ventured the wrong way a few times.  One wrong turn brought us to this dam and smaller waterfall where the water was so green it looked like an optical illusion.  I've never seen anything like it before.

There were several moments where we were tempted to just explore on our own instead of continuing to find this guy's directions, but ultimately we both opted to minimize the unknown and look for the beginning of the path.  Once we found the entrance he described (after a lot of debate and probably an hour of back and forth), we ventured down the steps and saw the falls and thought, "This can't be right.  There's no path."  We turned back, debated some more, and decided that indeed that was the correct entrance so it must be right.  Maybe we just missed the path.  This is when we realized that the directions actually did say, "Enter the stream proper."  And so it began.

We thought this was the top.
I've never experienced a place where it was so loud and yet so quiet.  The only sounds around were the stream, the distant, more violent falls, and my occasional whimpering.  There wasn't another soul in sight.  We started up the first set of falls.  Unlike my previous post about climbing the stairs, where you can't help but look up and marvel at how far you have to go, this type of climbing had a distinct requirement of only focusing on where you are right now.  This is because a) you can't see that far ahead because there are giant rocks and water crashing down right in front of you, and more importantly b) if you aren't paying attention you will fall over and into the waterfall. Sure, there is the occasional need to brace yourself and look ahead in order to avoid dead-ends and strategize which path will allow you to keep climbing, but you get what I mean.  As you can imagine, this is the perfect remedy for an unrelenting anxiety about life.  At some point when someone was trying to counsel me on how to "just relax" (good luck with that if you haven't tried it), it was said that fear is living in the past, and anxiety is living in the future.  Well, here you go: no choice but the present.

Although there were a few points where I looked down and said, "What the hell am I doing?" or "If my parents knew what I was doing right now, they'd kill me," I was generally pretty uninhibited by the task at hand.  It brought me back to the hours we used to spend as kids playing "hot lava" where you couldn't touch the ground.  It was so fun and carefree, hopping from rock to rock, trying to devise the most efficient and least life threatening way to climb higher.  No tactics or strategies were off limits; there was crawling, scaling, pouncing, grabbing onto moss-covered branches, using your arms to hang on as you swung between slightly too distant stones.  There wasn't a "right way" to get from one point or another.  It was about doing whatever worked to keep moving forward and upward.

But actually, that's the top.
My boyfriend provided the perfect amount of support, testing the water (literally, at one point) so he could turn around and provide me an extra hand whenever necessary, but also letting me climb ahead when I was feeling confident.  When I thought I had finally reached the top, I hoisted up onto a flat rock where I could comfortably relax and let my guard down, I looked up and was shocked to see... there was more.  Way more.  It was already a wonder to marvel at the medium sized fall, and even more breathtaking to look up and see something ten times as big.  It was just like reaching a different level in a video game, it remained hidden until you were at a point where you thought you'd conquered the game.  And then, there it was, a challenge that loomed aggressively above you, reminding you that you can never "win", and just how tiny, weak, and insignificant you are.

We obviously decided this was the end of the line for us, so we stopped for a minute for some water and to soak in the epic atmosphere.  Though my boyfriend had no problem relishing in the experience, after a few short minutes and a couple photos (included here), our little adventure finally caught up with me and my sense of self preservation kicked in.  How had we come this far, and how were we going to get down?  What if it starts raining?  Those clouds look dark, it would be better if we started our descent immediately.  Yes, the falls were great, but they were also scary and it was time to go.  My boyfriend wanted to relax for a few minutes, but I couldn't be convinced.  I went ahead and started the descent.

OK that was fun, can we go down now?
It's amazing to me to reflect on how genuinely I had enjoyed that climb to the top.  My mind was at once completely free and also wholly focused.  I was experiencing everything in real-time, instead of the delay that usually results from my habitual over analysis.  I was playful, joyful, and totally present.   There was no real "destination" or "goal", there was a drive to get to the top but a lack of clarity on what that looked like.  Yet, I instinctively knew when I had "arrived" and it instantly ceased being enjoyable.  On one hand, it is validating to realize that I had truly embraced an "It's about the journey, not about the destination" mentality, but shouldn't I also revel in the destination, even a little bit?

To take the analogy further, I am truly enjoying the experience of living abroad, of establishing a new business in a foreign place, of navigating the challenges that come along with it.  Though I have a vague idea and a motivating vision of what "ultimate success" would look like here, the fun part is figuring out how to get there.  I don't think "success" would necessarily make me any happier than I am now.  If anything, the pressure of that sort of "achievement" would ruin any corresponding sense of enjoyment.  In some ways, I have already fallen victim to this, as I don't think I have paused to properly acknowledge or celebrate even the little milestones I've reached in the past six months.  Sure, after each accomplishment there was a brief moment of relief, but then came the subsequent flood of new goals, concerns, and problems that were suddenly within reach.

Part of this lack of pause is simply my personal drive to "achieve", but perhaps another part of it is a bit of the "impostor syndrome" -- not believing I deserve my own success, but that I have merely tricked the world into thinking I am capable and as a result of my deception, I have accidentally landed in a good place.  So, I better keep going, keep taking things to the next level before anyone figures out that I'm not actually good enough to have done all this.

Whatever the reason, my new goal is to change this mentality (though I'm still a bit unclear on how) and try to step back once in awhile and feel good about what I've accomplished.  Enjoying the journey shouldn't mean the destination can't be great, too.


Monday, June 24, 2013

Pushing Your Limits

As an intern on the trading floor, I was always told that you needed to be aggressive but not annoying.  I found it quite perplexing because these characteristics seem like exactly the same thing to me.  When I think 'aggressive', I picture someone who is pushy and can't take no for an answer.  So, basically, someone I'd like to punch in the face.  Over time, however, this concept started to make more sense, though of course it is always much easier to recognize the right (or wrong) balance when observing others.  Nobody can be perfect all the time, everyone seems to waver back and forth, resisting a pull toward one of the extremes.  For me, if I had to choose one or the other, I'd definitely prefer to be placed in the not an obnoxious bitch category.  As a result, I was often criticized in my reviews for not being aggressive enough, for letting people say no and not pushing things as far as they possibly could go before giving up.

This dichotomy of character is not only relevant in sales or in business.  The ability to know when to push and when to let things be is a key for success in personal relationships as well.  In all those romantic movies they always look each other in the eye and say, "Oh darling, you make me a better person!"  Obviously if someone just let you be and didn't push you on a few things here and there, you might be a good person but you'd never get better (or at least not on said lover's account).  But on the other hand, you can't be with someone who doesn't love you as you are, and is always trying to change you.  Finding that balance has provided plenty of fodder for the box offices, that's for sure.

But what they don't show in the movies is that this concept is especially relevant when it comes to your relationship with yourself.  When should you push yourself to be better, faster, stronger (thanks Kanye), and when should you just respect your own limits?  Self discipline surely is a tool essential for success, but it can also be a self-imposed prison that prevents you from enjoying life as it comes.  Sometimes, if you force yourself to try something new or do something you don't typically do, you end up enjoying it on a level you never would have experienced had you not tried it.  On the other hand, sometimes you just end up uncomfortable and regretful.

Even though my trading floor persona may have erred on the passive side (or so they say), I have always aimed to challenge myself to take things to the next level.  Being content is never enough, I always aim to see more, learn more, and do more.  There was even a time when I actually thought I might not ever want to actually be happy, if it meant I would become complacent.  Of course that's extreme, and my more mature self has successfully convinced me that these two things are not mutually exclusive.  But when it comes to life, I am all for trying new things.

Clearly I have recently taken this to a bit of an extreme - new continent, new job, new company, new everything (though my hair is pretty much the same.)  With all this new-ness piling up, it can be difficult to find myself amongst the rubble.  There's something about this experience, especially working as a pseudo-entrepreneur, that has forced me to stare my limits in the face.  There's only so much you can take, there's only so much you can do, only so many e-mails you can write.  I feel disappointed in myself in that there was part of me that hoped my potential could be limitless, but lately I've been feeling all too human and all too aware of the concept of scarcity of resources.  I can see things falling through the cracks, leads I can't follow up on, relationships I am skimping on maintaining, ideas I don't have time to execute.

There is a point where you have acknowledge that you've tested and reached your limit, and now you need to scale back, take a break, or ask for help. There's always a shadow of doubt that I am giving up too easily and I should be pushing myself harder, but I ultimately opted for the latter.  Today, I made my first hire in Hong Kong.  I'll have a second person joining the team in a few short weeks, and the sky feels like it is opening up again.   My mind is swimming with reinvigorated possibilities.  Not just for the business itself, but also for building a team here.  I set the tone.  I create the culture.  The GA Hong Kong team can be whatever we choose to make it.

It's an exciting time, and things are starting to feel real.  I think I will always question the line of 'aggressive but not annoying', 'ambitious but not pushy', and 'optimistic but not stupid' -- but hopefully I'll find a way to navigate it that is kind to myself and others.  I hope I can be a determined go-getter that doesn't take shit from anyone, but also someone who is thoughtful, respectful, and realistic.   Not exactly an easy thing to aspire to, but we'll see how it goes.


Monday, June 17, 2013

The epic battle of the birthday blues

I'm not exactly sure what it is about birthdays.  Every year, without fail, I cry.  It's really dumb, I know.  Your birthday is supposed to be fun.  It's supposed to be the day you can relish in getting attention, opening presents, doing whatever you want, and spending time with all your favorite people. That's what the optimists say, at least.

However, my inner pessimist still inevitably creeps out at some point during the day (okay fine, very early in the day) and reminds me that there's something deeply saddening about a birthday. It's an annual reminder of our own mortality, a time where you are forced to take a look at what you've accomplished thus far and put it somewhere in the context of your entire life.  Am I 26% through my allotted time?  Or, is that overly optimistic, and it's more like 40%?  Should I be 26% of the way to where I want to be?  I should probably be a lot further than that, but who knows... where do I want to be anyway?  Clearly this is a dangerous path, and it's very easy to get lost, so I try to stop myself from falling into this existential abyss.

In the past, I have tried to pinpoint exactly what is tangibly bothering me so I can use it as a pivot point for improving my state of being.  Two years ago, it was a sense of frustration and disappointment in myself -- I felt that I was seriously dissatisfied with my lifestyle and had recently gained the awareness necessary to vocalize it, but not yet empowered to do anything about it.  I had accomplished nothing, I didn't know where I wanted to go, or what I wanted to leave behind.  One year ago, it was a sense of trepidation and abandonment, with my boyfriend recently leaving me behind to move halfway across the world.  Would I be able to be happy without him there?  Would my friendships be the same without a boyfriend in the picture?  Would we be able to survive the distance?  I was full of questions and self hatred for being so upset about a guy.

Anyway, those things seem to have at least tentatively worked out and yet this year is no different.  So, I'm out to figure out what the hell it is that has me so upset, and whether or not I can actually do something about it.  My current hypothesis is that it is a nagging sense of disconnection.  My family is so far away, scattered across the U.S.  Usually I have the privilege of sharing my birthday with Father's Day, so it seems like a time we should all be together.  My friends are enjoying another beautiful and romantic New York summer.  I'm at a point with General Assembly where things are going well, but it's also up to me to take it to the next level.  We still are not a permanent fixture in Hong Kong, and if I were to leave tomorrow and cancel everything, I am not sure anyone would notice.  We are still too new to have impacted anyone's life in the way that I believe we can, and hope that we do.  I have gotten started, indeed, but I'm not quite anywhere yet.

Alright, hold on.  The optimist is fighting back. I won't let myself mope for too long.  I may be far away, but there's a hell of a lot of people that care enough to say 'Happy Birthday'.  And I'm here, right?  In Hong Kong?  Where I have wanted to be for so long.  I've traveled a long way, but that also means I've come so far.  I'm on a journey, not sure where I'll end up, but learning a shit ton along the way, and isn't that what matters?

Just like I've written before, maybe I really can choose to enjoy this day.  Maybe my approach has been all wrong.  Instead of trying to silence the pessimist,  I need to silence the voice inside me that is telling the pessimist to shut the fuck up.  I need to silence the voice that is telling me I'm a total brat who can't just accept the joys of a birthday and have to make it so much more complicated than that for no reason at all.  I acknowledge that I'm concerned about all of this because I care, because I want to make the most out of my life, because I wish I could be everywhere with everyone I care about, all the time, because I love my family and I want to be close to them.  Those are only the best of intentions, and that's all okay.

So, happy birthday to me.  I'm going to try to be nicer to myself today, and instead of trying to force myself to enjoy, I'll allow myself to enjoy.  It may sound like semantics, but it's a big difference.

P. S. I'd like to add that this is one of those blogposts that I am very tempted to 'Save as draft' and never publish.  It's obviously quite personal and certainly doesn't portray me in the best light.  But I'm going to publish it anyway, because I want to share the ups and the downs of this journey.  It's not perfect, and neither am I, so... might as well put it all out there in the hopes that someone will read it someday and it will resonate with them.