The art of self-education and the art of insane possibility

I’m back! I was gone for awhile but I’m… back. And it’s about time too.

In July I underwent a jaw surgery (not life-threatening, but still a pretty major surgery) and I got knocked off my path for a while, as you might have noticed. The physical recovery after was intense, but the emotional aspect was worse. To be honest, I dipped into a dangerously low place for a bit, and that’s why it was quite impossible for me to keep up with writing this newsletter/blog.

In other words, I was down in the dumps. Depressed. Very depressed in fact.

Ironically, my last article was about positivity and how I am often “too positive” for my own good. This episode with my post-surgery depression reminded me that I am made of quite fragile stuff, and that I am not immune to depression (even if I have kicked its butt once before). It also goes to show that we human beings are more complicated than we can ever imagine ourselves to be. Turn a bend and there it is, a side of you that you never knew existed. Turn another bend, and you are unrecognizable.

I also learned that when shit really hits the fan, and nothing anyone says can help make you feel better (and I mean not even a psychiatrist, whose words can ring pretty empty at times like these)…

And no amount of self-help works or amounts to anything remotely meaningful…

You pray. You pray hard. And you let time do its magic.

So my major lesson has been that I am weak, but that I am also – strangely, bizarrely – strong. Who the hell even knows what that means? But there is a mystery to it all – this falling and breaking and healing and becoming stronger – that I am still trying to digest and understand.

It’s an ongoing process.

After an ordeal like this, I can’t help but notice that life begins to take on more shades. Don’t ask me why. But the world seems filled with more blues, more greens, more reds. And mostly more grays.

Not quite so black and white anymore.

I started this newsletter/blog to share my thoughts about what I think makes a good life. I also started it because I needed and wanted an avenue to write, to practise writing.

As a wannabe writer, and a person who wants to think hard about what it takes to live a “good life”, it is a blessing – however unwanted – to be able to meet with disasters and unexpected difficulties. That’s when I bump up against the limits of my old views, and I begin to see more clearly and inch somewhat closer to the truth.

So overall, it’s always a good thing when bad things happen, because we learn. Unless we don’t learn, then the bad thing just becomes a pointless tragedy.

I wanted to jump right into today’s topic – “self-education” – which is something I have been pondering over, but I thought it would be good for me to explain my absence over the last 3 months. After all, I had promised to write one article a week. You don’t make such a commitment and just disappear for 3 months!

So I’m back writing. And thinking. And hopefully writing and thinking with a little more nuance, a little more maturity.

Right. On self-education.

Recently I have been toying with the idea of going back to university. As you know, I never did graduate. I was an English major at NTU (a public university in Singapore) for exactly one year, then I dropped out. That’s the extent of my higher education.

As a photographer, and as someone who intends to be a photographer for a long time, I have no need for a college degree. But sometimes I think about how wonderful it would be to go back to school again, to be surrounded by books and ideas and people who love learning as much as I do.

When these thoughts appear in my head, they often come tinged with a purplish dreamy hue.

I think that’s because I have been dreaming of a false and idealistic image. I was a university student myself back in those days, and I hated school. I had zero appreciation for my privileged education. All I wanted then was to be let loose onto the big wild world out there. What learning? What knowledge? What I yearned for was the world out there, that seemed ever so enthralling and full of wonders and bright lights. I wanted to be a music producer. I wanted to write. I wanted to meet people who were doing amazing things with their life. I wanted to create, make a name for myself… so get me the hell out of here right now!

That was my 20-year-old inner monologue.

Now, at 31, after having taken a spin in this “big wild world”, I want increasingly to go inwards instead. Enough of the crazy noisy world out there, I want to know the answers to some big questions. Like who am I? What am I made of? What is a cell made of? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? Does my mind affect my body or does my body affect my mind? Why do countries go to war? How does history affect our lives as citizens today? Why are people not as moral as we want them to be? What is the implication of artificial intelligence? Where will technology take us in a few decades? And do we want to get there?

The more I thought about it though, the more it seemed that maybe going back to university won’t cut it. I love my freedom, and my job requires me to travel at short notice. So short of going back to a physical university, what can I do to effectively educate myself?

Enter MOOCs.

MOOC is basically short for Massive Open Online Course, courses put online for anyone in the world to participate in, learn from. Some of these courses were originally taught in some of the best universities in the world – Harvard, MIT, Yale, Stanford – and now they have been put online, in platforms like Coursera and EDx, for free or at an extremely low fee.

So instead of going back to university and slogging through four years of academic sludge, I now get to learn from some of the best university curriculum in the world. For free or next to nothing. And I get to design my own education by making my own decisions on what I want to learn, based on the questions that I am currently obsessed with.

I’m enrolled now in a few courses. “Minds and Machines” is one – it’s an Introduction to Philosophy of Mind course offered by MIT to its first year undergraduates. “Philosophy and Critical Thinking” by University of Queensland is another one. As you can see, I’m interested in, amongst other subjects, philosophy. But there are courses in hundreds of other subjects – music, the history of the western civilization, biology, law – whatever you can think of, whatever you might be interested in studying, I have no doubt there’s something for you.

The other thing I’m trying to teach myself to do is writing. Yes, I know you wouldn’t be reading this if I didn’t know how to write. But that doesn’t mean I’m a good enough writer. I want to teach myself to be a better writer. That’s why I started this newsletter/blog, so that I have an audience to write for. And with the help of writers like William Zinsser, who published the famous “On Writing Well”, I am learning slowly to become a better writer.

Already Zinsser has influenced me profoundly. He was the one who said, “the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” So nowadays, all I do is cut, cut, cut. Instead of trying to create a style deliberately, I simply say what I want to say and cut the fluff out. It makes writing 200% easier.

I get excited just thinking about the things I want to learn in future.

One of the joys of learning, I think, is simply the joy of learning itself. Learning reminds us that we are indeed alive and changing. We are not static and can transform our bodies and our minds. And that’s good news.

To be able to teach ourselves new skills is also to have the means to be anything we want to be. We can learn to code, to sketch, to argue better, to build a house (if we are so inclined), to play the cello – anything at all. The internet is our best friend. But the fuel must come from us in the form of our urge to learn.

And of course, a measure of discipline and a sprinkling of will.

What are you interested in learning? Please swap learning stories with me! Would love to chat more about this. You can just reply to this email and I’ll be able to get your message.

Till then, happy learning.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Putting life at the center

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” Jack Kerouac, On the Road”

July, August and September were spent traveling. I went to Tasmania and drove a couple of hundred miles across the island, accompanied by Jason Mraz’s smooth voice drifting out of the stereo singing, “Drive a little slower / not ready to go home / I’d rather stay with you…”; In August I was in Japan, traveling in Shikoku, hopping between the Setouchi art islands; after that I came back to Singapore, took another short trip to Tokyo, and then flew directly to weather-perfect Boston, where I stayed for about 2 weeks.

It’s kind of insane when I type it out like that, but for some time now I have been living this way, traveling for months out of a year, so it doesn’t seem that unusual to me. But people are always telling me, “You really travel a lot!” or “You travel too much!” To which I routinely reply, “But I like traveling!”

I guess this is how I want to live my life right now, doing more of the things I like and lesser of the things I dislike, and to work less and live more.

There is a constant tension within me: Part of me wants to be and enjoys being a productive, useful member of society (creating / working / hanging out with people is a lot of fun and often makes me dizzy with excitement); another part of me yearns very much to be alone with my books and music and solitude for long periods of time, preferably at somewhere beautiful and surrounded by nature.

I need this swinging between the two states (40% connection, 60% isolation) in order to feel balanced, happy, sane.

So I work hard for months, and then drop out, go somewhere far enough, and try to disconnect.

I like this kind of life. I have always wanted to live this kind of life.

Of course, to live such a lifestyle also means having to unlearn many of the ideas fed to me while I was growing up. Like the idea that the best thing for us is to find a stable job and work hard and retire at the age of 65 or so. Anything less is considered irresponsible, lazy.

Well, I’m a freelancer. I’m a photographer. I’m everything my father told me not to be. Maybe I’m irresponsible and lazy, but I’m happy. I work hard when I want to. I reject jobs when I need to focus on other parts of my life. I don’t see the need to constantly feed the economic machine. I earn money and I save my money. I don’t need a lot of material things. Maybe I will never get to buy a private property or a fancy car – that’s totally fine with me. But I want to always have time to read books and see new places and listen to music and be with my cats and learn how to be an urban sketcher and take swimming lessons.

I chose to have less so I can be more.

So… questions:

Why can’t we retire at the age of 35? Why 65? Or what’s to stop us from redefining the terms “retirement” or “work” or “play”? Why can’t work be play? Why can’t play be work? Why can’t life be work + play + do nothing in particular at all in equal measures? And why are we so scared of leisure?

Why can’t we build our life around… life, as opposed to building it around work? Think about it – if your life is at the center, as it should be, then work becomes just one component, along with all the other things that matter – your relationships, your hobbies, your travels, etc. Wouldn’t that be absolutely cool?

Then instead of blindly heading to work and coming home every day, seeing your bank account increase by a fixed amount every month, by putting your life at the center, you force yourself to constantly think about what matters, how you want to live, and what makes a good life. Then when you are able to attempt to put all these philosophical meditations into real-life action, you begin to live an embodied life, not one where half of your life happens only inside of your head.

Since I dropped out of university 11 years ago, I have pondered and wrestled with the following question. It’s a very thorny question and is at the heart of life itself. How do I get to live life the way I want to live life, without being sucked into the machinations of society?

I haven’t figured everything out, but in my mess, I feel like I have succeeded somewhat in proving my own thesis – at the very least to myself – that it’s possible to live life with some degree of freedom. Of course, that’s because “freedom” is something I value a lot. You might not value it as much as I do, so the shape of your life is probably going to look very different from mine.

But the point is, we must individually overcome the fixed ideas we have been burdened with by society since our birth, whenever it makes sense. And we must find our own true north through this laborious process. It is in this questioning and through years of trial and error (which means we must go out and try doing things at the risk of failing at them) before we can slowly create a life whose shape is pleasing and satisfying. That’s when you can begin to know what the center of your life even looks like.

And – in a more practical sense – we must learn to want less, lest we get strangled by the money monster.

And maybe, just maybe, we can then die without too many regrets.

Isn’t that what life is all about at the end of the day, this eternal struggle to find your own comfortable place in the world?